Religion and spirituality in the original ‘Mass Effect’ trilogy

religion spirituality mass effect (2)
(BioWare/Electronic Arts)

*Spoiler Alert*: those who have not yet played and completed the original Mass Effect trilogy have a choice:

  • Play the games first, appreciate the conclusion and then read this article.
  • Defy reason, read the article, spoil the end and then finish the games.

Those who have played the game, or those who haven’t but gave into spoilers have no such decision to make. What is known now can’t be unknown. The end won’t change.

The inevitable comparisons of Mass Effect: Andromeda to BioWare’s original trilogy of the same name, particularly in terms of the story, invite a look back at the trilogy to what made it compelling in the first place. Part of that, as I’ll be discussing in this article, is the spiritual component of the trilogy which, while not immediately apparent, eventually makes itself known.

It’s been years since the release of Mass Effect 3, the conclusion of Commander Shepard’s quest, and the fury over the series’ end has calmed, some bitterness remains. Many players, or at least the more vocal ones, saw the ending as a weak disappointment, a meaningless mass of pseudo-mythological mumbo jumbo, an atrocity which retroactively undid all the enjoyment or admiration they ever had of the series, like finding out that their favorite author once attended a Klan rally. Others, quietly, viewed it as a perfectly poetic conclusion to a marvel of modern storytelling, loaded with the type of ambiguity that English majors like myself view as the defining characteristic of true “art.”

The vitriolic reaction focused on two things: that each ending is the same regardless of player decisions and the so-called “Starchild.” While the former criticism has merit, and will be addressed later, the more interesting reaction is to the Metatron-like figure who enters as a literal deus ex machina.

In a universe built upon reason and nature, this injection of divinity felt like a radical shift from all which came before. With a series which so heavily dealt with themes such as the philosophical and speculative nature of life throughout the universe, what it means to be alive, what the fate of those living will be and how the choices we make effects that outcome, I always felt that matters of faith were conspicuously absent. Even as a non-religious person I’d acknowledge that religion is a big part of the human experience, so it would only make sense that in such a deeply human series the issue would be addressed in more than Ashley Williams’ dialogue options in Mass Effect and Liara’s frequent assertion of “the goddess.” Yet, upon further consideration, this absence is itself part of Mass Effect’s belief structure. The divine plays no role – until the end.

© BioWare / Electronic Arts

Essentially, we learn from the Starchild that in order to prevent the destruction of all organic life in the universe those species advanced enough to create their own synthetic forms are harvested by the Reapers leaving non-advanced species free to continue their independent evolution without interference from either advanced cultures or from the Reapers’ creator. This, in many ways, makes Mass Effect a deist allegory.

Deism, for those unfamiliar, is a belief system stemming from the Age of Enlightenment. Among the fundamental beliefs is that there is a creator, or in deist terminology, a Divine Watchmaker, who gave humans reason and the universe. Although most original deists were intellectuals raised as Christians, the belief system rejects all religious texts, dogmatic practices and belief in miracles, prophecies or religious mysteries.

The universe was created to run as a watch does, without the creator’s intervention, hence Divine Watchmaker. The Watchmaker does not interfere with daily individual life, nor in the general workings of the species. The way in which one may feel a connection to this Watchmaker is through application of logic and appreciating the perfect balance of the world about them. In short, deists live in a universe built upon reason and nature. In this way the Watchmaker operates in exactly the same way as Mass Effect’s Starchild.

© BioWare / Electronic Arts

According to Mass Effect mythology, the Reapers wait while organic species progress. Once one or more reach the point at which they use mass relays, locate the Citadel (both of which were the creation of the Reapers and, therefore, their creators) and make prevalent synthetic life, the Reapers enter the galaxy and, shall we say, extract those advanced species from the universe leaving the less advanced behind. Up until that point however, all life in the universe progresses by itself.

The prologue to the first Mass Effect states that the discovery of the mass relay jumpstarted human advancement to where the species was no long confined to Earth. This means the Citadel and relays formed the catalyst (oh yeah, pun intended) of human advancement. No longer did humans have to use reason to push themselves, they had that of others to use. Dependence upon technology means humanity no longer focused on nature. As Mass Effect 3 opens on Earth, there is not a tree or blade of grass in sight. When left to follow their own path, the dominant species of the Mass Effect universe choose one which turned away from both nature and their own reasoning.

Deism argues that simple cultures have simple belief systems. They use the reason and natural surroundings they are given by their creator to advance and interpret as they will. As cultures advance they develop superstitions and mysteries which serve only to separate them from a true understanding of both themselves and their creator.

It’s fitting then that the more advanced species of the Mass Effect universe, the Asari in particular, come to revere the Protheans and judge themselves by their advancements. These species reach the point where they create mysteries and prophecies rather than apply their own logic. They seek the miraculous, prophetic or mysterious explanation rather than the reasonable one.

© BioWare / Electronic Arts

It could be argued that every species will eventually advance to the point where they will reach the mass relays, and that any rational species will want to use them to further explore the universe. Remember, however, that the original deists were raised Christian. Christianity has a tradition of God testing faith. While there are no specific tenants in deist belief dealing with an afterlife, a resentful creator or any form of divine punishment, followers decide through their own experience whether these elements exist, it could be argued that the Watchmaker (Catalyst, Crucible, God, however you prefer) planted the mass relays and Citadel as a test for those species which encounter them. A species which truly appreciates the laws of nature and reason won’t depend on these found objects. In fact, such a species may never even find them. Thus, as Christianity states their God is vengeful, it’s acceptable that the Watchmaker may become dismayed. Who wouldn’t want their work appreciated by those to whom it was given? Additionally, as the creation of synthetic life could lead the destruction of the universe, the Watchmaker prefers to take its creation back rather than see it ruined.

Appreciation of reason and the law of nature are further symbolized by the fact that the “perfect” ending is that which destroys Reaper technology, any other choice leaves Shepard dead. Although the races of the galaxy may choose to rebuild the relays, they must do so using their own logic, not that which had been given to them by others. Whereas the mass relays and Citadel were originally found intact, they must now be rebuilt. Life will be influenced by life and not by any sort of divine or mysterious being. Further, the final image of Mass Effect 3 is of the Stargazer wandering not through a gleaming metropolis but an open forest – a return to nature.

© BioWare / Electronic Arts

Whether or not the Mass Effect series is meant as a deist allegory can’t be known, and this is where the genius of the ending lies. By leaving its conclusion vague players make their own choice about what happened while enjoying, or in many cases, sadly, decrying, the masterpiece they’ve been given.

As for criticism that the final choice in the game, between control, synthesis and destruction (or refusal) results in the same basic ending, this too is allegorical not only of deist belief, but real life. No matter what choices we make, be they paragon or renegade, the ending is the same for everyone. The fact that the refusal ending, wherein the player actually sees the Normandy and their beloved crewmates destroyed, is the saddest of the options, demonstrates that it’s the lack of making a choice which leads to the worst consequence.

As in Deism, Mass Effect emphasizes freedom and choice. We can’t expect anyone or anything else to push us to the right action. We are the ones responsible for determining our path. The end won’t change, but meaning is in the way there.

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About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll has spent years traveling the world, writing books, performing poetry, teaching, playing D&D, and occasionally discussing movies for Pop Mythology. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press. He can put his foot behind his head.