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Future Tense Newsletter: Mass Effect’s Transportation Obsession
May 8, 2023

Future Tense Newsletter: Mass Effect’s Transportation Obsession

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The 2000s Video Game With an Unexpected Lesson for Today’s Transportation Debates, Mass Effect’s obsession with transportation.

In the spring of 2021, just months before Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—heralded by the Biden administration as the largest-ever federal investment in public transit, bridge repair, and clean energy—I found myself playing a lot of Mass Effect Legendary Edition. This was a happy coincidence, because never in my life had the nation been so embroiled in wonky debates about infrastructure priorities and spending. And as it turns out, Mass Effect was the perfect 100-hour video game for that particular moment in history: It’s absolutely obsessed with transportation technologies and their social, cultural, and political implications.

Despite its revolutionary capacity, we often conceptualize transportation in mundane, frustrating terms: long commutes and congested highways, spotty bus service and increasingly crowded sidewalks littered with e-scooters. That’s what makes fiction centered around these questions so important—especially when it comes to thinking through the big investments we want to make in infrastructure, what we hope to accomplish, and the challenges we should anticipate. Fiction gives us space to think carefully about how transportation technologies are central to issues of power, access, and equity. And Mass Effect insists upon these connections through its story and themes, but also through the moment-to-moment machinery of how it’s played.

Getting around safely and quickly is an old problem: Futurists and urbanists (and science fiction writers moonlighting as both) have been fixated on transportation infrastructure and technology for more than a century. H. G. Wells wrote in his 1902 book Anticipations that ‘upon transport, upon locomotion … hang the most momentous issues of politics and war.’ Ebenezer Howard’s 1898 proposal for ‘garden cities’ called for meticulously planned concentric circles ringed by wide lanes and canals, with railways tucked quietly below ground. Edward Bellamy, in 1888’s Looking Backward, imagined a future Boston designed for maximum walkability: a five-minute city with hyperlocal conveniences, buttressed by a pervasive system of pneumatic tubes delivering all manner of goods directly into the home.

Legendary Edition, a thoroughly polished-up redux of a trio of much-admired games originally released in 2007 through 2012, levels up these visions to a galactic scale. Set in the far future, Mass Effect opens up a future where humans (and other species) have discovered ‘mass relays,’ titanic pieces of mysterious ancient technology floating in space that allow high-speed travel between star systems. This revolution in space travel puts humans into contact with other intelligent, spacefaring civilizations throughout the Milky Way, and allows us to create off-world settlements and conduct interspace commerce—but also, inevitably, exposes us to a range of existential dangers. Hearkening back to H. G. Wells, a staunch proponent of robust transnational government, the mass relays prompt the formation of an interplanetary, interspecies government, complete with a ruling council, security and intelligence services, and an ornate body of regulations, norms, and treaties—even conventions on the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Throughout the trilogy of games, you play as Shepard, a human special-forces operative who eventually takes charge of a starship, leading a crew of humans and other species on an adventure far too sprawling to describe here. Suffice it to say, the game is a blend of planetary exploration, branching ‘conversation trees’ where players select responses and make decisions that ripple out through the story, and what video game developers call ‘cover-based shooting’ (gunplay with an emphasis on taking cover behind environmental features like metal boxes or ledges).

Mass Effect is far from perfect in how it approaches gender, race, sexuality, and religion. But in a games industry that is often exclusionary or silent on issues of equity and justice (especially in the 2000s), Mass Effect‘s creators are committed to grappling with these issues and articulating a vision for a future in which diversity, pluralism, cultural sensitivity, and cooperation are assets in the face of armed conflict, economic injustice, and threats to the rule of law. And all of these interchanges are enmeshed with the series’ representation of transportation infrastructure. There are the mass relays key to the games’ plot, but also Shepard’s starship, the smaller landers for shuffling between the ship and the surfaces of various planets, drivable rovers, mech suits, trams, and, notably, long elevator rides in which crucial character-building conversations happen. (These were notoriously used to disguise the games’ long loading times, but are also a venue for revealing character insights and welcome moments of levity between firefights.) If you think back on your Mass Effect playthrough, it becomes clear that while the combat and lengthy, branching conversations are the back-of-the-box selling points, you spend about as much time just driving or flying around, waiting on trains and elevators, or even traversing the corridors of your own vast ship to chat with your crew members.

The major question pursued across the three games is whether the various societies can mend fences or put aside their differences, at least temporarily, to fight together against a formidable common enemy. But this is no small matter: The same mass relays that enabled the formation of this theoretically utopian galactic United Nations have, perhaps predictably, touched off collisions that have led to wars, enslavement, the use of diabolical bioweapons, and attempts at genocide—not to mention the more quotidian trade wars, resource conflicts, interstellar piracy, and intellectual property disputes. The transportation infrastructure that created the conditions for intercultural cooperation also enabled new forms of oppression and violence—to repeat the Wells quote from 1902: ‘upon transport, upon locomotion … hang the most momentous issues of politics and war.’

Fittingly, nowhere is transportation infrastructure more visible than the Citadel, the galactic seat of power, a gigantic space station replete with mazelike corridors, seemingly pointless series of staircases, a fleet of networked flying cars, a breathtaking system of starship docks and loading bays, and elevators upon elevators. You return here time and time again to gather resources, meet new allies, report to your superiors (human and nonhuman), and shore up political will. The Citadel is frequently mystifying to traverse; it’s easy to waste time getting lost and backtracking. But the game also rewards time spent figuring out the architecture, because of how it reflects the galaxy’s power relations. Species without much clout are confined to small embassy offices, sometimes even having to share; the Council meets at the top of a massive tower; a cryptic banker-slash-information-broker has offices just near the tower’s base, underlining the entanglement of secrecy, knowledge, and capital that keeps this tottering edifice standing. The Citadel is also the hub of the galaxy-spanning network of mass relays, so its political centrality is mirrored by its geographic situation at the center of the transportation system.

If we hope to have a global future characterized by peace and mutuality, and if we aim to save ourselves from the worst ravages of the climate crisis and our many other ecological emergencies, we need to be able to govern and coordinate among ourselves across difference, harnessing the vitality of diversity instead of letting antagonistic forces amplify conflict and political violence. As Jane Jacobs, yet another visionary thinker, so ably demonstrated in 1961’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the shape and design of our transportation infrastructure is a critical factor in either unlocking cultural interchange and creating the conditions for learning and thriving—or figuratively and literally walling communities off from one another. As unlikely as it might seem for a space opera with so many dogfights and gunfights, Mass Effect shows how transportation technologies enable diverse societies to form, and the intense forms of intercultural understanding and cooperation that are required to surmount the new challenges they open up. After all, sometimes a jaunt into the distant future is just what we need to recognize the bigger stakes of today’s wonkiest debates—transportation and otherwise.

Here are some stories from the recent past of Future Tense.

In ‘Escape Worlds,’ author K Chess explores the uncanny territory of personalized media. In the wake of intense trauma, the narrator finds refuge in an escape-room-style video game that gathers a huge amount of personal and social media data to customize its levels. But how much does the game really know? Is the narrator projecting her emotional turmoil onto the experience of play, or is the game really able to discern unique insights into her feelings of entrapment? The accompanying response essay, written by video game designer Liz Fiacco (who worked on The Last of Us: Part II and Uncharted 4), explores how games can use player data to create bespoke gameplay, but also delves into how the kinds of invasive data-mining techniques depicted in ‘Escape Worlds’ can undermine the goal of creating a meaningful experience.

15 Years Ago, the NSA Spied on World of Warcraft—but Did a Leak Change Anything?‘ by Kaile Hultner, Polygon

Waypoint, Vice’s games channel, has laid off its staff and is being shut down on June 2, 2023. Since 2016, Waypoint has been a beloved outlet for criticism, journalism, entertaining and insightful game streams, podcasts, and more. Its 2017 series ‘At Play in the Carceral State‘ explored the intersection of games with prisons and prison culture, with pieces ranging from a report on the games detainees have access to in Guantanamo Bay to an analysis of Murder Dog IV, a satirical game that pokes at the distortions of the justice system by simulating a courtroom trial. In another memorable piece, ‘Here’s How to Ruin a City,’ author Cameron Kunzelman considers how the city-building game Cities: Skylines encourages us to think about systems and systemic failures—in his case, why his in-game city was inexplicably filling up with dead bodies.

On Friday’s episode of MediaDownloader’s technology podcast, host Lizzie O’Leary interviewed Anousha Sakoui of the Los Angeles Times about the role of technology in the screenwriters’ strike, from streaming to A.I. Last week, Lizzie spoke to Stephen King (!!) about how he really feels about being ‘gifted’ a blue check mark. She also explored why gig workers are being paid differently for the same work with Veena Dubal of the University of California. And on Sunday, Lizzie will be joined by Naomi Nix of the Washington Post to discuss whether Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has lost his footing—and his employees’ trust.


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