Between The Pixels: Classic Literary Themes in the Mass Effect Trilogy Part 1

Posted September 9, 2013 by Kenneth Rodriguez in Nerdy Bits

(Author’s Note: I have personally logged over 170 hours into the franchise, including all of the DLC and mining [those of you who know what I mean just had terrible flashbacks], and not even getting into Mass Effect 3 multiplayer which is a wonderfully rich experience all its own. I have written this with a focus on my personal experience with the paths I chose, as it is the one I can speak best to. While many of the intimate details may change during someone else’s play, the overall themes remain as a backbone of shared experience. )    



Themes in storytelling are cyclical in nature, someone comes up with one way to express a thought and many others follow this person’s lead in telling their own interpretation of that theme. Works by Shakespeare and the Ancient Greek philosophers have been remade into modern stories countless times. This can also be seen in Hollywood, with too many similar films and television shows have been strangling the industry into a bottleneck that threatens implosion. Video games, as a storytelling medium, offer a totally new experience for classical themes we may be already familiar with. No other art form can create an environment where I feel more personally connected in the story, as I can create a digital version of myself and quite literally put myself into the experience; While the decisions I make within the game have an immediate and lasting impact on the story as it is experienced in real time. This is much more than any movie or book can say, as purely passive experiences.

The classical themes of hopelessness in The Myth of Sisyphus, the redemption and self-sacrifice of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and ignorance of knowledge and courage to venture into the unknown in Plato’s The Allegory Of The Cave show up clearly in my most beloved gaming franchise, Mass Effect. For those unfamiliar, it is a series of science fiction games where the narrative acts as a web, connecting the draw dropping set-pieces filled to the brim with lore. The astoundingly heartfelt and complex relationships developed between Shepard and the varied cast, as well as tense combat sequences that allow your creativity to flourish as you curate your particular playstyle, all drive a deep, emotionally investing experience. The story is absolutely on par with the epics written by some of the best science-fiction writers; full of nuance, messages, themes, struggles, romance, and emotion.

My personal version, Carlos Shepard. Modeled after me of course

My personal version, Carlos Shepard. Modeled after me of course

The protagonist is Commander Shepard, a soldier in Earth’s Systems Alliance navy, the supranational governmental organization created by the nations of Earth to handle the challenges of interplanetary colonization and exploration in the year 2183. My version, Carlos Shepard, lived a hard life of homelessness on the streets of Earth, became a graduate of the elite Systems Alliance N7 Special Forces unit. He became a war hero by saving the human colony of Elysium from slavers. Merely 40 years earlier, humanity made a discovery of epic proportions when exploring Mars, as they discovered the ruins of an ancient civilization called the Protheans.


Their civilization was far beyond ours in terms of technology and dissecting it helped humanity discover the premise of the Mass Effect. Using a substance called Element Zero to alter the mass of any object positively or negatively depending on the magnitude and polarity of electric current passed through it. This discovery accelerates human advancement hundreds of years by allowing Faster-Than Light space travel, kinetic barriers for defense, and development of super strong materials previously unattainable. The proof of humanity not being alone in the universe also sets off a new wave of xeno-theists and, much like the people trapped in the cave in Plato’s allegory, once Humanity is taken out of the dark, a hunger to explore the extra-solar planets to find more is born [Plato].

The Prothean data discovered leads explorers to the moon of Pluto, and they discover it is something much more, it is an inter-galactic travel shuttle called a Mass Effect Relay. Using a much stronger version of the Mass Effect discovered earlier, it allows ships to travel several hundred light-years across the galaxy in mere seconds, opening up the entire galaxy to human colonization. After traveling though it and colonizing a few planets, humans have their first encounter with a live alien species, the Turians. Humans were violating inter-galactic laws they didn’t even know existed set forth by the Citadel Council, the intergalactic governing body made of representatives of all the sentient species of the galaxy. The Turians are a war-faring species that are considered the peace-keepers of the galaxy and are harsh on the humans violation of laws, taking their ignorance as a measure of their worth.

The Citadel, the center of Galactic Society. Its majesty is a wonder to behold

The Citadel, the center of Galactic Society. Its majesty is a wonder to behold

This conflict comes to be known as the First Contact War and Humans prove themselves as a worthy adversary and stave off the much more experienced Turians. After this conflict, the humans are welcomed into galactic society and offered an embassy on the Citadel. This is where the first game in the series begins, as Commander Shepard is sent on a mission to pick up a Prothean beacon on the human colony Eden Prime. When he arrives, he discovers that the planet is under siege by Turian rouge Spectre (a special operations agent of the Council with authority to act outside of the laws) named Saren Arterius and his army of hive-mind linked mechanical solders called Geth.

Saren with with Geth soldiers backing him up

Saren with with Geth soldiers backing him up

Shepard and his crew fight him over the Prothean beacon and save the people of Eden Prime from collateral damage. In the battle Shepard is exposed to it, instilling horrible and chilling visions of destruction of the entire galaxy by an ancient machine race called the Reapers and is warned of its inevitability. After his exposure, Saren escapes with the beacon and Shepard returns to the council and warns them of Saren’s motives to help the Reapers come and destroy the galaxy, yet they don’t believe him and count it as a myth.

They do count on his military experience and prowess and grant him Spectre status to hunt down Saren. He is the first human to do so, and it is a major sign of respect and influence for the humans trying to prove themselves to the galactic community. This is the first step of Shepard’s long journey to defend the galaxy against the impending doom of the Reapers, and his Sisyphus – like battle to get support and belief on his side to triumph in the battle nobody else will believes him is impending. His warnings are constantly put down as ridiculous and impossible, refusing to give him support or prepare for an invasion they believe will never happen, but he keeps trekking on, like Sisyphus’ futile endeavor to push the rock up the unending mountain [Camus].

After travelling around the galaxy trying to take down Saren, their conflict finally comes to a head when Saren makes a full-scale assault on the Citadel, the heart of galactic civilization. Shepard finally convinces some of the citadel forces to help him in fighting Saren, especially when he discovers that Saren’s highly advanced starship, Sovereign, is actually a scout Reaper sent by the rest to investigate the worth of the galaxy’s sentient species as adversaries. Shepard and the entire citadel fleet fight hard against Sovereign and the Geth to stop them from destroying the citadel, and saves the Citadel Council in the process, earning their essential gratitude.

In his final encounter with Saren, Shepard discovers that Saren is simply an indoctrinated puppet. As a Spectre, has a good position to employ Sovereign’s will and joined with him under Sovereign’s promises of power. Shepard convinces him to fight against the power and remember he has a good heart and a duty to protect the galaxy, this gives Saren just enough strength to commit suicide, cutting his link to Sovereign and crippling it long enough for the rest of the fleet to destroy it. This redemption and self-sacrifice after the horrible atrocities that Saren committed is akin to Macbeth in his redemption of his character after his bloody path to becoming king [Shakespeare]. Saren becomes a tragic hero, and somewhat of an inspiration to Shepard for his own personal sacrifices he has to make later in the series.

Sisyphus, and his eternal struggle

Sisyphus, and his eternal struggle

Shepard has many more challenges and battles to survive as he fights toward the war with the Reapers in the third game in the series. Continuously thinking he has made some progress, only to have to start at square one, much like Sisyphus with his rock, but he seems to find solace and a sense of purpose in his endeavors. No matter how many times he is knocked down, he gets back up, and seems at his best when he is challenged.



Works Cited

  • Camus The Myth of Sisyphus
  • Plato The Allegory Of The Cave
  • Shakespeare The Tragedy of Macbeth

About the Author

Kenneth Rodriguez

Kenny has been completing his pokedex since Pokemon Yellow, ever ready for his next test, comics in hand. He thinks Mass Effect is the best game series ever,.. period and loves TV and Movies dearly. Follow him on Twitter @k_rod14