Failure and Faith in the Vacuum
Exploring Mass Effect 2’s respectful and varied approach to spirituality
The much-beloved Mass Effect Trilogy was remastered and released in its Legendary Edition this year, sparking a wave of fresh playthroughs, discourse, and fan content from the thousands of us with a deep love for the franchise’s story and characters. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic (and hopefully, soon, its aftermath), certain aspects of the franchise seem more salient than they’ve ever been: fractured societies talking past each other, corporate greed and apathy exploiting the common person and leaving them to rot, and a not-so-distant cataclysm looming in the future. As fans replaying this game for the first time in as long as a decade, we see the colonists and natural resources exploited by the ExoGeni corporation on Feros and think of Amazon, Nestlé, or Coca-Cola. We see the fractured, at-odds state of the galactic races on the Citadel, led by an ineffectual Council, and think of our own politics and governing bodies. We look at the twin plagues on Omega and the Krogan Genophage, and we now see similar responses to the real world pandemic. We look at the Reapers and see the twin existential threats of nuclear war and climate change. It’s one thing to see and understand the allegories; it’s another to experience it. Yet amidst all this hopelessness, frustration, and apathy in both the game and real life there are threads of hope we cling to.
Over 2020 and into 2021, people have turned to a variety of things to find hope, strength, and meaning: faith, philosophy, and codes of ethics. In my own replaying of Mass Effect 2, I was surprised by the amount of time the game’s characters spend discussing these very things. In the modern age it’s very common for the first responses to spirituality or religion to be negative — and some of these are warranted. Organized religion has been a power structure or moral excuse for war crimes and genocide, for example. Combine this with Atheism as the fastest-growing “faith” in America, and frustrations with religious fundamentalists, and you have a reasonable breeding ground for anti-religious sentiment. That is why I was pleasantly surprised to see Mass Effect 2, a modern science-fiction work, approach spirituality with nuance, care, and variety. The text does not, itself, pass judgement on any particular system or process — it allows you to engage with, judge, and consider these things as you play the game. By meeting spirituality where it is, the game avoids a common trap: it doesn’t tell you what to believe. I think that’s an important thing to avoid when discussing faith, no?
Excuses and Forgiveness
As any good space-opera does, Mass Effect features an array of human and alien characters, and their cultures. This naturally means an array of religions, which means different pantheons and holy figures. There are a few human characters that are up front about their belief in the Christian God (Ashley Williams, for example), but some of the alien companions you recruit throughout Mass Effect 2 are as open. From the polytheistic spiritual assassin Thane Krios, to the Asari’s worship of their Goddess, to the Hanar’s worship of their Enkindlers, there are many deities and belief systems to look at. In the context of Mass Effect 2, all of them are presented as valid — even if the characters’ interactions with them are not.
Let’s look at Thane Krios, for example. One aspect of his faith is that every person is comprised of two connected, but distinct parts: the body and the soul. As you speak with the terminally ill assassin you learn about his decade-long stint as a killer-for-hire after the death of his wife.
In his words, “The body is not our true self — the soul is. Body and soul work as one in a whole person. When the soul is weakened by despair or fear, when the body is ill or injured the individual is disconnected — no longer whole.”
“My employers killed them. My body was only the tool they used. If you kill a man with your gun, do you hold your gun responsible?”
“Humans often believe in a soul distinct from the body. A spirit responsible for moral reasoning that lives on after the body’s death. Our belief is just a bit more literal.” — Thane Krios
He takes this belief to an unhealthy, but understandable place. After the death of his wife at the hand of mercenaries, Thane becomes ‘disconnected’. He excuses his systematic slaughter of those same mercenaries, and the following decade of killer-for-hire work (abandoning his son in the process) by saying that his soul, his mind, had slept. You as the player can push back on this, pushing him to take responsibility for those actions. The resistance he offers is polite and half-hearted, and he opens up as you continue to speak with him on your journey — eventually culminating in a good friendship after you help him save his son from following in his footsteps. Like so many real people, Thane uses aspects of his faith as a balm for his regrets. But, when given time (and a friend), Thane approaches his failures head on and is given the opportunity to find forgiveness in both his faith and the eyes of others.
It’s one of our older beliefs. Many embrace the Hanar Enkindlers, now. Or the Asari philosophies. The old ways are dying. There’s so many ways to interpret one’s place in the universe. Who needs the wisdom of our ancestors? The younger generations don’t believe they can help us fathom genetic engineering, orbital strikes, or alien races. — Thane Krios
Thane is an old soul, and is unafraid to vocalize the questions and beliefs of newer generations in regards to faith and religion. But at no point does Mass Effect present any of this as foolish, misguided, or wrong. It is presented as but one more way to “interpret one’s place in the universe”. While his faith is not the core, single tenet of his character (despite my focus on it here), it is a significant player — and one that is approached with nuance and care. His faith carries with him into Mass Effect 3, culminating in one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking scenes in the trilogy…but you should play the games and see it for yourself.
Your mission gave me purpose. A cause to die for. A chance to atone. I was able to speak to my son again. I can leave my body in peace. — Thane Krios
Searching for Repentance
For many — again, myself included — the search for answers and peace has been a struggle. Finding something that fits, that resonates, and feels right, is hard. It only becomes harder when the miasma of past failures or mistakes hangs over you, dragging at you with every step, no matter how much distance you put between you and it. As it becomes harder, it feels more necessary. This is the case with fan-favorite Mordin Solus, the salarian scientist that developed a fertility plague.
Mordin is responsible for the fertility plague that decimated the Krogan population and led to the implosion of their culture. While the plague was a countermeasure designed to prevent the Krogan from running rampant as galactic conquerors, it’s something that he’s had to do a lot of soul-searching over.
“Genophage modification project altered millions of lives. Then saw results. Ego, humility, juxtaposition. Frailty of life. Size of universe. Explored religions after work was completed. Different races. No answers. Many questions.”
“Wheel of life. Popular salarian concept. Similar to human Hinduism in focus on reincarnation. Appealing to see life as endless. Fix mistakes in next life. Learn, adapt, improve. Refuse to believe life ends here. Too wasteful. Have more to offer. Mistakes to fix. Cannot end here. Could do so much more.”
— Mordin Solus
In those two quotes you see an unparalleled scientist wrestling with faith, trying to find an answer, a justification, a way to seek atonement for what he’s done — even if he deems the original actions justified at the time. It also shows the very common struggle of the modern age: the struggle to find answers congruent with the current understanding of science. Mass Effect 2 approaches this aspect of Mordin’s life with the same distance it had with Thane, giving the player the space to make their own decisions on the text without being subjected to overt developers’ or writers’ bias.
Mordin’s path to redemption is long, bloody, and consequential. His crime was far greater than Thane’s, and he had no faith to fall back on. He could not pray to the goddess Kalahira for forgiveness, as Thane could. He found no answers through faith, though he never fully stopped trying. Mordin represents a nice counterpart to Thane in this discussion, because he shows that one does not require faith or religious conviction to improve oneself, push through hardship, or atone for past mistakes. Part of the beauty of Mass Effect 2’s depiction of this is that it, again, is never presented as the correct or factual choice. It is just another option. Another reality of the search for meaning amidst the vacuum of dark space.
“Had to be me. Someone else might’ve gotten it wrong.”
— Mordin Solus
I could continue on at some length on this topic. I could discuss the existential questions posed by the sentient AI race of the Geth, and whether or not they have a soul. I could discuss the ideas of karmic debt that influences Garrus for much of Mass Effect 2. I could discuss the strict philosophy and code of ethics displayed by Samara, the asari Justicar. There is much to discuss, but I want to end it here for now. What I hoped to accomplish here is highlight two complementary examples of how Mass Effect 2 approaches the concept of faith and spirituality, and why it’s important for such a widely popular science-fiction work to include these topics. We live in a stressful, dangerous, fluctuating world, floating amidst a mostly empty universe. We should find meaning and comfort wherever we can; the first step is being open to new answers.
The universe is a dark place. I’m trying to make it brighter before I die. - Thane Krios