A lot of us are playing the Mass Effect trilogy for the first time in almost a decade, and a boatload of folks are playing it for the first time ever. With that in mind, lots of Mass Effect’s politics are being revisited. While it always embraced the military-industrial complex, it also has a few dated elements within its ideology, alongside a timeless depiction of the evils of bureaucracy.
Hailed as progressive when it first released, it still has a more nuanced outlook on the questions it evokes than most games, and while it was a key part of games embracing more diverse romance options, it now lags well behind many RPGs despite previously setting the standard. Luckily, modders are here to restore some recorded-but-unused lines on that front, but that’s a different story. The fact is, the Mass Effect series is deeply a product of its time, for better and for worse.
Where that gets tricky is Overlord. Initially an add-on for Mass Effect 2, the Legendary Edition now includes all DLC – bar the deleted Pinnacle Station – as standard, so it’s available to everyone. Unfortunately, it sucks. It really, really sucks. DLC in Mass Effect is pretty hit and miss, if you ask me. Previously, I’d always regarded the Mass Effect DLC as being consistently top notch, but playing through the whole thing together, I realise the heavy lifting on that front was being done by Lair of the Shadow Broker, Kasumi, and the Citadel DLC. The rest go from average (Leviathan, Zaeed, Arrival), to boring (Bring Down The Sky, Firewalker), and fail to live up to the rest of the game.
Overlord does not suck in the way that Firewalker sucks though. It sucks in a way that makes me think maybe it just shouldn’t have been included. Pinnacle Station had to go because the source code had been left on a bus, or something, and Mass Effect 3’s fantastic multiplayer was left out because of some waffle about it not being fair to the people still playing the old version. Yeah, I’m sure those people who love Mass Effect so much they’re still playing the multiplayer nine years after it came out are thrilled you’ve decided not to update their favourite thing in the world, BioWare. The point is, there’s already two pieces of content stopping Mass Effect: Legendary Edition from being truly complete. BioWare should probably have gone for the hattrick.
If you don’t remember Overlord, it stars David – an austic savant who is able to communicate with, or at least understand, the geth. “Because he’s autistic, he’s basically more of a computer than a person, right? Autistic people have no emotions, they’re essentially giant walking robots that run on blood instead of battery acid” – these are the problematic views at the heart of Overlord. They’re especially strange because Veetor, the quarian you meet in the first mission and again during Tali’s loyalty mission, also seems to be austic-coded, and is given a far more accurate and sympathetic portrayal.
Many people who have played through enough of Overlord have come away with the same thought – “Ooh, that’s aged badly.” But the thing is, I’m not really sure it has. To think that suggests that it was fine back in 2010, when it was released – it was not.
I believe in the concept of things aging badly. Attitudes of society shift, people become more educated on certain issues, and minorities that previously had no voice in the media get the opportunity to elevate themselves above being the butt of the joke. As a trans person who watches a lot of older cartoons, television, and films, you have to roll with the fact that if you watch anything pre-2000, there’s probably a joke at your expense lurking somewhere, ready to burst out like a spring loaded boxing glove. Even with post-’00s, there’s always a chance. The X-Files, one of my favourite shows ever, has an episode literally called Gender Bender, where a body switching Amish person changes gender to murder with impunity.
Overlord is not the same as Sex and the City saying ‘trannies’ back when everyone did. We knew in 2010 that autistic people were real people. It’s such an obvious thing to say that it feels almost silly to write it, but if the argument for Overlord is that it has ‘aged badly’, there is an implication that even if it’s underlying ideas were always bad – a la Sex and the City – the way Overlord presented them was at least socially acceptable. Again, it was not.
There’s no redemption in Overlord. Sure, Shep saves the day and rescues David, and the one who hooked David up to the computer – his own brother, no less – is depicted as the villain, but it’s not so much the treatment of David within the game that’s troublesome as it is the treatment of David by the game. When David is hooked up to the computer, it works. Yes, he goes rogue and is overwhelmed by the VI and the project itself is a failure, but the game accepts the initial premise – autistic people are just computers. Just plug them in and their funny little calculator brains will work their magic.
If the game had been from the ’90s, I might have agreed with you. Society’s views of autistic people were built around fear, misinformation, and the movie Rain Man. By 2010, we had come significantly further, and yet Overlord – quite atypically for Mass Effect – does not embrace this nuance. It was dated back in 2010 too. It hasn’t aged badly – it was bad from the start.
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