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Michael Fuchs, Michael Phillips, and Stefan Rabitsch: The end is nigh! Bring forth the Shepard! Mass Effect, the Apocalypse, and the Puritan Imagination

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The apocalypse is a foundational element of the American imagination and still influences the ways in which many Americans perceive the world, the course of history, and their providential role in it. Against this background, the image of America as a paradisal ‘city upon the hill’ contains a range of latent undercurrents that have placed “a persistent value strain” on American culture (Lipset 268). Indeed, the accompanying rhetoric of national self-confidence, sense of mission, and guaranteed redemption of a divine promise, first established by early Puritan settlers, has always been attended by a discourse of fear, doom, and failure.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Michael Wigglesworth’s “The Day of Doom” (1662), which is often considered the first American bestseller, perfectly illustrates the darker undercurrent that permeates the ‘Land of the Free.’ As its title indicates, the 224-stanza poem revolves around Judgment Day and tries to justify God’s wrath at the end of (human) time. Wigglesworth’s underlying intent was to promote mankind’s need for incessant regeneration and renewal of their covenant with God—in America’s case, often through violent means (cf. Slotkin). This idea would later evolve into the irony-laden concept of America as a perpetually “unfinished country” (cf. Lerner) constantly chasing the ideals of continuous change and progress in pursuit of redeeming God’s promise. The apocalyptic rhetoric epitomized by Wigglesworth’s poem has reemerged in times of crisis, from the “Great Awakening” of the 1740s through the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation right up to 9/11 as a sign of the end of America’s global leadership. However, while visions of the world’s impending demise have been a consistent theme throughout American history, the means of disseminating these apocalyptic scenarios have definitely evolved.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In this context, Daniel Wojcik has stressed that “electronic media are especially valuable sources of information about the (…) expression of apocalyptic beliefs” in the current day and age. Film, television, the internet, and video games are frequently used to express “the concerns, feelings, and hopes of people who anticipate the end of the world” (17). In line with Wojcik’s argument, the video game trilogy Mass Effect (BioWare, 2007-2012) presents an ideal artifact for examining the role of apocalyptic narratives in the early twenty-first century. Apart from its global reach and popularity, the game series’ mythological imprints, which were enhanced by its unusual development history, make it a particularly fertile ground for cultural analysis.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 When the final installment of the Mass Effect trilogy was released, fans of the series complained so vociferously about the narrative’s conclusion that the developers ultimately added “extended endings” months after Mass Effect 3’s launch. While some scholars have discussed this unusual development twist as representative of the shifting balance of power between “consumers” and “producers” in the digital age (cf. Jenkins, in general, and Ganzon with reference to Mass Effect, in particular), a closer analysis of the trilogy’s multiple conclusions also offers a revealing look into the ways in which the game reinforces deeply ingrained American cultural narratives, while simultaneously exposing uncomfortable specters that have haunted American culture since the Puritans.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In this chapter, we will argue that whereas Mass Effect originally had the potential to ‘do’ space opera differently (in part because of its self-proclaimed Canadian imprint[1]), market-driven decisions forced the sequels and thus the series’ narrative to conform to a familiar adventure formula reminiscent of the Puritan Jeremiad.[2] Thus, faced with chaos and destruction of apocalyptic proportions, the player character, Commander Shepard, lives up to his or her[3] name by serving as a kind of Nehemiahs Americanus in space. He (and thus also the player) re-enacts a divinely ordained role that Cotton Mather ascribed to the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, in Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), and which has since been attributed to a range of American prophet figures. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. The Puritans, who believed in the interrelation between scriptural history and the real world, saw themselves and their works as an “errand into the wilderness” (cf. Miller) that would result in America becoming a New Canaan—a divine promise contractually guaranteed in their covenant with God. While the Puritans did not complete the New Jerusalem during their lifetime, God’s promise entered the American national mythos in which redemption, while guaranteed, was perpetually deferred. This is why, as we will further argue, especially American players’ backlash against the original endings of Mass Effect laid bare deeply rooted and usually unconfronted fears about the (perceived) failure of redeeming God’s promise. As Sacvan Bercovitch has reminded us, “[f]ailure [is] un-American (…). It was the secular mark of those whom the Puritans had designated as visibly not one of the elect” (xxxvii).

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Mass Effect: Yet Another Errand

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In terms of its narrative context and content, Mass Effect is a space opera set toward the end of the twenty-second century. While reminiscent of science fiction classics such as Star Wars and Star Trek, Mass Effect is likewise indebted to Babylon 5. Its vast, complex, and immersive storyworld as well as its mythopoetic scope were introduced in the first game and then developed in the subsequent two games, as well as numerous transmedia extensions (comics, novels, handheld games, an animated movie, and various online texts).

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 According to Mass Effect’s fictional history and mythology, human explorers first discovered traces of an ancient spacefaring civilization on Mars in 2148.[4] The artifacts, as Captain David Anderson puts it in the first game, “jumped [humanity’s] technology forward two hundred years” and allowed human civilization to expand beyond the frontiers of the solar system. Only nine years later, humanity crossed paths with the Turians, a martial culture seeking to police humanity’s actions on Mars (where humans had unknowingly violated interstellar laws). Confronted with the seemingly belligerent aliens, humans shot first and asked questions later, thereby revealing humankind’s xenophobic impulse to eliminate that which is unfamiliar. Despite the fact that this first human encounter with another advanced species fueled mistrust of humankind for decades to come, over the course of the next thirty-five years the human race became increasingly integrated into galactic politics.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Within this historical context, Mass Effect puts players in control of Commander Shepard, a human soldier whose gender, ethnicity, and personal background can be customized before the beginning of the first game, while his sexual orientation and personality are performatively defined during gameplay. As the narrative unfolds, Shepard uncovers a cyclical historical pattern controlled by an ancient, sentient machine race—the Lovecraftian Reapers. This pattern, which repeats every 50,000 years, involves the “harvesting” of all advanced organic life forms, which makes possible the Reapers’ evolution. Unsurprisingly, the cycle is about to end, and Shepard emerges as the individual upon whom “the fate of the galaxy depends,” according to an insert in the opening moments of the third game.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 At the start of the third game, Reapers are attacking the sprawling Vancouver-Seattle megacity in which Shepard resides. In the opening minutes, the player is confronted with a truly apocalyptic scenario. Against the backdrop of debris and fire, the gigantic squid-like Reapers move across the scene, systematically annihilating whatever stands in their way. The Old Machines descending from the skies leave trails of fire in the dust clouds emerging from the destruction on the ground level. These visuals evoke the Book of Revelation: “there came hail and fire mixed with blood, which was hurled down to the earth” (New American Bible, Rev. 8.7). As the Reapers move about, they make deafening sounds, recalling Wigglesworth’s lines inaugurating the apocalypse: “Before his Throne a Trump[et] is blown, / Proclaiming th’ Day of Doom.” By employing these well-established tropes in its initial minutes, Mass Effect 3 emphasizes its setting at a moment in time when not only the world but also the galaxy are teetering on the brink of destruction—the end times clearly have begun. However, this destruction is repeatedly delayed until the end of the game (and postponed even further in the game’s extended endings). In the roughly forty hours of playing time between Mass Effect 3’s beginning and its conclusion, Shepard unites various species that had been in conflict with one another for centuries under the banner of humanity. Finally, as the end of the game approaches, the Reapers launch a large-scale attack on Earth, as numerous organic and synthetic species fight the enormous spaceships in a battle to decide the fate of the galaxy.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Figure 1: The third game’s opening moments depict an apocalyptic scenario. Screenshot from Mass Effect 3, Xbox 360. Mass Effect 3 © EA International, 2012.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The fact that the various species living in the Milky Way join forces in order to fight for a common cause under humanity’s leadership is merely one of several aspects that symbolically align humankind with the United States. Not only does the uniting of species echo America’s national creed, “E pluribus unum,” it also bears the stamp of America’s sense of mission, which shaped the course of global events for the better part of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in an attempt to enforce the hegemony of Pax Americana. In addition, Mass Effect projects the idea of Manifest Destiny into the interstellar sphere.[5] This exceptionalist discourse, which has been imprinted on the American cultural imagination since the early nineteenth century (if not since Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity”[6]), feeds off two interconnected themes—one exemplary (i.e., America as a role model), the other evangelical (i.e., America’s divinely ordained mission)—which reverberate in Mass Effect’s apocalyptic timbre.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Not coincidentally, the game’s developers have stressed that Shepard’s name was inspired by Alan B. Shepard, Jr., the first American to travel into space, a connection which evokes Cold War discourses and America’s proclaimed mission to maintain freedom in the face of the perceived Communist threat to democracy across the globe. What is more, the thinly veiled allusion between the player character’s name and the ‘shepherd,’ a well-worn Judeo-Christian archetype, adds a potent layer of meaning. As Bercovitch has suggested, prophet figures such as the biblical Moses and John Winthrop are part of a narrative cycle that sees an oppressed and/or persecuted but chosen people embark on an exodus out of bondage and toward (New) Canaan (cf. 55-63).

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 By tapping into these American myths and symbols, the game text reinforces the idea that despite the continued existence of nation-states, in Mass Effect’s twenty-second-century reality “the cause of America” has truly become “the cause of all mankind,”[7] to quote from Thomas Paine’s elaborations on the American character (3-4). In fact, in Mass Effect, this American/human cause becomes the cause of the entire galaxy, as the advanced species fight for freedom from the “order” the Reapers seek to impose in an effort to end “the chaos of organic evolution.”

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The Crucible of Mass Effect’s Endings

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 This American ideological underpinning also comes to the fore in the series’ original endings. In Mass Effect 3’s finale, Shepard confronts a literal deus ex machina: the Catalyst, a god-like artificial intelligence who, in its own words, “control[s] the Reapers,” which are his “solution” to the “inevitable” annihilation of advanced organic life forms by synthetics. Since Shepard is the first organic being to confront the Catalyst, he concludes that his “solution won’t work anymore” and presents three options to Shepard: destroying all synthetic life, controlling the Reapers, or “combin[ing] all synthetic and organic life into a new framework; a new DNA.”

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 While the game text blatantly suggests that synthesis is the preferred choice, for it “is the final evolution of life,” the game series’ conclusion lies in the player’s hands—at least theoretically. In practice, the player’s choice has little effect on the actual ending of the game and the series. No matter the choice, the Mass Relays, which are interconnected and make interstellar travel possible, explode, each one vaporizing the entire star system in which it was located (as the “The Arrival” add-on to the second game suggests). In other words, even though the Reaper threat may be contained, most of the galaxy is devastated, and what remains are insular planets unaffected by the large-scale destruction that occurs at the conclusion of Mass Effect 3. Thus, despite the galaxy-wide destruction, Shepard’s crew (but not Shepard himself) ends up on a remote planet in most of the endings.[8] The visual depiction of the virgin planet, characterized by a lush, natural environment, seemingly untouched by civilization, evokes popular images of the Garden of Eden.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Figure 2: In most of the original endings, Shepard’s crew lands on a virgin planet. Screenshot from Mass Effect 3, Xbox 360. Mass Effect 3 © EA International, 2012.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Wojcik has suggested that the second half of the twentieth century witnessed a move away from earlier interpretations of the end of days as “a meaningful, transformative, and supernatural event” toward “a meaningless apocalypse” (1). However, Mass Effect is not one of these “meaningless” apocalyptic stories. Indeed, the return to Eden at the end of the trilogy makes explicit that American apocalyptic tales do not simply envision the end of life; rather, the genre is built upon imagining a future by evoking an imagined golden age located in the past and a space deeply ingrained in the American national project. In the case of Mass Effect, this future is, in fact, a return to a simpler time. Of course, this nostalgic return to the past does not imagine revisiting any ‘real’ point in history but rather constructs an idealized image of the past. In a world in which biotechnology, second (or third or even nth) lives, and virtual landscape design have essentially denaturalized nature, the nostalgic yearning for a harmonious existence with nature expressed in the trilogy’s endings is, indeed, understandable. However, this nostalgia for a “lost referential” that never was but always could have been ensures that “what is lost is the original,” which nostalgia “reconstitute[s] as ‘authentic’” (Baudrillard 43, 99). Similar to the Puritans’ belief that they were re-enacting and thus actualizing scriptural history (i.e., a past that never was), the imagined return to the simulacral past in Mass Effect 3’s concluding moments is equally an imagined future. In this way, the apocalypse guarantees a new beginning, whose perpetual repetition provides a central component of American mythology (cf. Martin).

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 This new beginning, founded on the ruins of the galaxy, is characterized by a simpler existence in a paradisiacal setting, the beauty of which emerges from a desire to escape the tumultuous and frightening present. However, as Maria Manuel Lisboa has astutely observed, “the deep structures of the new world often have inbuilt in them the prototypes of old errors repeatable indefinitely” (54). In Mass Effect, this inbuilt error is civilization’s hubristic reliance on technology, most specifically in the form of synthetics and artificial intelligences. The Catalyst emphasizes that “the created will always rebel against their creators,” and that without the Reapers’ intervention, “synthetics would destroy all organics.”[9] Tellingly, EDI (an artificial intelligence installed on Shepard’s starship in Mass Effect 2 which takes on a gynoid body in Mass Effect 3) ‘survives’ the apocalypse and is still part of the crew when they crash on the remote planet in the narrative’s concluding moments. In fact, EDI’s presence in the new Garden of Eden not only literalizes Leo Marx’s notion of the machine in the garden, but it also leaves players to wonder whether (and to what extent) the new civilization that is about to be established will be different from the one it has just replaced.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 On a deeper, cultural level, for both American players and players who grew up with constant exposure to American cultural narratives in popular culture, the series’ original endings evoke redemption and the concomitant fulfillment of a divine promise informed by the latent Calvinist belief in predetermination, which undergirds American exceptionalism and the Puritan Jeremiad. However, since this narrative template does not come full circle in Mass Effect, the endings expose a specter that haunts the American promise—the inability to accept failure. In other words, the American belief in guaranteed success makes any situation that leads to (perceived) failure an identity-negating rupture; if the belief and thus the hope in guaranteed success is taken away, American identity ceases to exist. Rather than developing mechanisms to cope with failure, American culture has relied on strategies to recode the anxieties attendant to a ‘sacred’ belief in guaranteed success whose fulfillment is perpetually deferred. For example, promoting hyper-individualism as an ideal, American culture deploys the individual as locus for any failure which, since it limits failure to the individual, does not jeopardize America’s gospel of success. Even relatively simple rhetorical strategies (e.g. there are no ‘problems’ in everyday American discourse, only ‘challenges’) belie the deep-seated anxiety over—and inability to accept—failure.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 This rejection of a foundational national myth arguably influenced players’ responses to Mass Effect’s endings. Indeed, Mass Effect’s devotees did not receive the third game’s conclusions favorably (to put it mildly). Supporters of the series expressed their disappointment in blog posts, YouTube videos, fan fiction rewrites, modifications of the game’s endings, and various other means available to fans in the digital age. When upset fans established a movement called “Retake Mass Effect” and launched a fundraiser that generated more than 70,000 dollars on its first day, even the Wall Street Journal and Forbes took notice, commenting that “the game’s most ardent fans were the ones getting mad” (LeJacq para. 7). Confronted with negative press from around the globe, but chiefly from the United States (cf. Bennett), the developers surrendered to fan and media pressure and made a free extended cut available as a downloadable content pack a little over three months after the game’s release.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 This extended cut “fixes” some plot holes and clarifies, as the game’s director Casey Hudson put it, “what the endings mean and what’s going to happen next, and what situation (…) the characters [are] left in” (qtd. in Gaudiosi para. 11). Yet despite the addition of a fourth choice in the game’s conclusion (namely refusing to pick any of the three options suggested by the Catalyst), the extended cut failed to—and, in fact, could not—address the most glaring critique of the conclusion: that players were deprived of any true influence on the story’s end, as their actions were part of a prefabricated narrative from the get-go. For players, this lack of agency was particularly galling in light of the ambitious claims made earlier by the developers. Prior to the third game’s release, they promised that since decisions from the first two games would be taken into account, Mass Effect 3 would truly be a rhizomatic narrative “that diverges into wildly different conclusions based on the player’s actions” (Wesrcks13, post #1). Of course, the agency video games afford players is ultimately nothing more than an illusion. As Hans-Georg Gadamer has suggested, “all playing is a being-played. The attraction of a game (…) consists precisely in the fact that the game masters the players” (106). Since “playing a video game” thus implies “reflecting upon the very notion of authority” (Fassone 49), Mass Effect’s ending, in which all three (or four) choices lead to essentially the same result, offsets the hundreds of choices made before the final encounter. The game confronts players with the harsh reality that the course of events was essentially decided before they even picked up the controller. Following Johan Huizinga, one may argue that the video game itself thus became a spoilsport by “rob[bing] play of its illusion” (11; italics in original).

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 While the pre-determined narrative arc is not such a rarity in video games, in most cases the attendant disappointment is mitigated by the emotional satisfaction of “conquering the game” by winning it, thus bringing the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. Interestingly, to this day, BioWare’s official website guarantees that players will “[e]xperience the beginning, the middle and the end of an emotional story unlike any other, where the decisions you make completely shape your experience and your outcome” (para. 1). However, a moving story arguably requires a satisfying ending, which typically does not involve the death of the players’ virtual double.[10] In the case of Mass Effect, the disturbance of the character’s death is further exacerbated by the final ‘challenge,’ which comes in the form of a deus ex machina that completely dictates the outcome of the story in the last minutes of a narrative in which players have invested about a hundred hours.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Although the developers ultimately refused to implement the kind of wholesale alterations needed to resolve this problem, the small changes they made in the new endings did subtly alter the implied meaning of the textual events and provide some limited consolation to disappointed players. The new concluding videos emphasize that the Mass Relays were, in fact, not destroyed, but merely “severely damaged.” The extended endings thus clarify that life across the galaxy is not wiped out and that by defeating the Reapers, Shepard has successfully averted the apocalypse.[11] However, in order to stop the end of the galaxy from happening, Shepard needs to “g[i]ve up his life to become the one who c[an] save the many,” as Shepard-turned-posthuman narrates in one of the extended endings. This point may not have radically changed from the original endings, but the fact that Shepard’s death is no longer overshadowed by galaxy-wide annihilation ensures that he emerges as the victim of the Reaper War—which, in the next step, highlights Shepard’s sacrifice.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 In the revised endings, Shepard’s sacrifice thus gains an added resonance. Georges Bataille has suggested that sacrifice is “a human action more significant than any other” (73), for it is a “noble death” that “endows the sacrificial object with sacrality and power” (King 41). Like Jesus, humanity’s self-proclaimed shepherd (New American Bible, John 10.11), Shepard sacrifices himself for the renewal of humanity. Yet while there may be the promise of renewal, similar to the way in which the post-apocalyptic world returns to an earlier point in history, sacrifice tends “to restore (…) prior (imagined) states of unity and unanimity by whatever means necessary” (King 38). In the world of Mass Effect, this past was characterized by stability, which was disrupted by the Reaper invasion. Due to the Reaper’s overwhelming technological superiority, symbols of power such as military force no longer mattered, and the balance of power could only be restored by a strong act of personal sacrifice. The added resonance of this noble sacrifice provides a more emotionally satisfying conclusion to the games’ narrative arc, assuring players that their virtual death was for a higher cause.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 American Fears Assuaged, Please Restart the Game

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Moving from the ludo-narrative to the allegorical level, the changes made to the endings reflect different reactions to the changing role of America in a globalized, post-9/11 world. Because 9/11 “made [Americans] aware of [their] mortality and that of [their] nation” (Manjikian 158), all of Mass Effect’s endings imagine a world that is safe and in which humanity’s—therefore, America’s—value system is restored. Both the original and the extended endings imagine utopian scenarios that express a desire for a simpler life far removed from the difficulties arising from the complicated, tension-filled present. That the realization of this utopian vision in the real world is unlikely (at best) is irrelevant. What matters is that Mass Effect’s endings project possible (however improbable) futures built on the past and present that serve to support Americans’ claim of utopia “as foundational to their official political authority” (Berlant 7). However, there is a crucial difference between the original endings and the supplemental endings. Whereas the pre-Reaper galaxy featured various interplanetary organizations as well as trans-stellar networks and flows (of capital, labor, resources, bodies, etc.), the world imagined in the original endings is characterized by isolation. Mary Manjikian has diagnosed a similar theme in recent American apocalyptic narratives. As she stresses, “[b]y erasing the vestiges of capitalism and militarism and withdrawing from the interdependent, globalized world, ‘Americans’ are able to rediscover their innate goodness” (171). Although Shepard’s crew may not entirely rediscover their own “goodness” when they are lost on an uncharted planet somewhere in the galaxy, the return to a more rudimentary life at the end of the game series pictures an existence without the complexities of a galactic (read: “globalized”) world. Add to this aspect the return to a pastoral past so often envisioned in the American imagination, and one can conclude that the game’s ending suggests a kind of centripetal isolationism:[12] America should refocus on its foundational ideas and ideals to restore the strong, independent, unified nation that it believes it once was.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 While this return to original principles is consistent with American exceptionalism, it deprives the nation of its imagined role as the indispensable leader of the free world. Perhaps the visions of the original endings, in which Shepard’s sacrifice simply opened up an escape route from the complexities of an interstellar world, were not enough to assuage anxiety about the decline of American influence. In the extended endings, on the other hand, the galactic civilizations continue on a centrifugal path paved by humanity (read: “America”) and “build a future greater than any” individual species “could imagine.” In this instance, although a galactic system had already been in place prior to the Reaper War, the newly emerging galactic system is, effectively, created by the human race. Allegorically speaking, this scenario suggests that America established the world system and is thus not required to adapt to changing realities in the global sphere, since it actively shapes said sphere. More polemically, Mass Effect seems to speak to America finally addressing its own position in a post-Cold War world—a project which was delayed by the triumphalism of the 1990s and subsequently exacerbated by the trauma of 9/11.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Thus, the new endings preserve the idea, so important to many Americans, that America holds a sacrosanct responsibility to serve as a leader and role model for the rest of the world. After all, therein lies the core meaning of America, but also its attendant irony—the process of renewal cannot be anything but perpetual. Ultimately, the final redemption of God’s promise has to be deferred forever lest American identity is radically changed, or, even worse, ceases to exist entirely. Accordingly, rather than “querying the hegemonic consensus regarding America’s leading role in the world” (Manjikian 135-36), the apocalypse imagined (and averted) in these new endings removes any anxiety about the decline of the American empire and heralds a novus ordo seclorum that follows in the footsteps of pioneering America. And, consciously or not, the mere fact that a video game series produced in Canada offers these America-oriented interpretations only confirms America’s soft power and further perpetuates American ideology in the industrialized Western world.


31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Works Cited

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33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Bataille, Georges. “The Jesuve.” 1930. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, edited by Allan Stoeckl, translated by Donald M. Leslie, Jr., Carl R. Lovitt, and Allan Stoeckl, U of Minnesota P, 1985. pp. 72-78.

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66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 Wesrcks13. “UNOFFICIAL Mass Effect 3 HYPE Thread (56k of Reapers invading).” GameSpot Forums. CBS Interactive, 15 Jan. 2012, https://www.gamespot.com/forums/system-wars-314159282/unofficial-mass-effect-3-hype-thread-56k-of-reaper-28977118/?page=1. Accessed 15 Aug. 2014.

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 Wigglesworth, Michael. “The Day of Doom.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Volume A: Beginnings to 1820, 8th ed., edited by Wayne Franklin et al. Norton, 2012. pp. 239-54.

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 Wojcik, Daniel. The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America. NYU P, 1997.

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 Wolf, Mark J.P., editor. The Routledge Companion to Imaginary Worlds. Routledge, 2018.


70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 [1] Peter Kuling has discussed the ways in which the voice actresses’ and actors’ performances reveal a Canadian identity. However, as we will argue below, the narrative also taps into distinctly American national narratives.

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 [2] For more on the use of the adventure formula in BioWare’s digital role-playing games, see Erat, Fuchs, and Rabitsch.

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 [3] Please note that we will use the masculine pronoun when referring to Shepard, as we have primarily experienced Shepard as a male character. While some minor details of Mass Effect’s story differ when playing a female Shepard, the larger narrative remains unchanged, which is why we believe that Shepard’s gender has little impact on the larger cultural narratives we address in this essay. A thorough discussion of the game’s complex gender (as well as ethnicity and sexuality) dynamics is beyond the scope of this essay. Readers interested in the game trilogy’s gender dynamics may consult Carlen Lavigne’s recent essay, in which she argues that despite the “signs of inclusiveness and flexibility, Mass Effect remains distinctly straight-male-focused. In particular, (…) the ad campaign for Mass Effect 3 reveals how Shepard’s feminist (or post-feminist) positioning appears primarily incidental” (318).

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 [4] For general introductions to fictional histories and mythologies in imaginary worlds, see Robertson and Alexander.

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 [5] The ideology of Manifest Destiny pertains to the Westward Expansion and the Frontier myth. In this way, Mass Effect draws on a dominant trope in American science fiction. For example, in his seminal book Frontiers Past and Future (2006), Carl Abbott concludes that the “theme of continental expansion,” which is interconnected with “the advance of civilization through contests with nature, native peoples, and nasty out-laws,” is possibly “the dominant national myth of the United States” (14). American science fiction which “deals with the outward spread of Earth-based peoples and cultures” taps into this theme of continental expansion (Abbott 14).

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 [6] Winthrop was a subject of the British crown throughout his life. Hence, he did not propagate “American” exceptionalism the way it is commonly understood. However, his sermon provided the discursive building blocks which became key to the national project of the United States.

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 [7] Of course, Mass Effect is far from the first science fiction text to draw on this idea. Infused with post-Cold War triumphalism, science fiction blockbuster films of the 1990s make for glaringly obvious examples. In Independence Day (1996), for example, President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) unites the world “in our common interest,” declaring that “the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday,” but rather re-inscribes it as a global day of freedom.

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 [8] The crew dies if Shepard (the player) fails to complete enough missions to earn sufficient military support from the various galactic species. Since this ending effectively implies the player’s failure, we have ignored it here.

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 [9] The fact that the Catalyst created artificial life in order to destroy all advanced organic life in order to stop artificial life from exterminating all organic life is, of course, circular logic and indicative of sloppy storytelling. So, too, is the fact that the Catalyst even highlights this “inevitable” clash if Shepard successfully reunites the Quarian people with their artificial creation, the Geth, after nearly 400 years of conflict.

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 [10] As Jesper Juul demonstrates in his book The Art of Failure (2013), failure is an essential component of the experience of playing video games. He suggests that the death of the main character may become meaningful if “it makes sense within the story of the game” (107). In Mass Effect’s case, however, many players felt that simply choosing one out of three (or four) options disagreed with what Shepard stood for.

80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 0 [11] Shepard even successfully averts the apocalypse if he decides to reject all options offered by the Catalyst—just not in the diegetic present, for the epilogue notes that “the information passed down” about Shepard’s deeds will enable a future civilization to defeat the Reapers.

81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 [12] While often glossed over in post-WWII discourse, isolationism is a key correlative to US exceptionalism. Over the course of the nineteenth century, isolationism (e.g. the Monroe Doctrine and its various corollaries) was the dominant foreign policy doctrine, which left an indelible imprint on the US-American worldview while its expansionist narrative played out across the continent.

Source: https://opr.degruyter.com/playing-the-field-video-games-and-american-studies/michael-fuchs-michael-phillips-and-stefan-rabitsch-the-end-is-nigh-bring-forth-the-shepard-mass-effect-the-apocalypse-and-the-puritan-imagination/