Monday, October 4, 2010

Mass Effect: Part 1

The universe is your oyster and it is your task to defend it from threats galactic and domestic. This is the premise of Mass Effect, and it is one that is approached with methodical care. For Mass Effect is one of the most comprehensive efforts of world building (or galaxy building) that I've ever seen in any form. The game has explanations for everything; you are walked through how the galaxy's faster-than-light travel works, why guns have no ammo clips, and how each separate alien species rule over their own people. And all of this information is specific, scientific, far-reaching, and fully aware of the consequences of the fictional technological advances depicted within.

Needless to say, I liked Mass Effect. And I really wish I had had the chance to complete it. Sadly, it was not to be. My computer struggled with the game, creating lag and stuttering that I manfully shouldered past in order to keep going. I managed to get through probably about a third of the game; I completed every sidequest possible within the galactic capital, the Presidium, before trying to depart into the galaxy beckoning to me from the viewports. When I went to view the galactic map, however, my computer was so overwhelmed (by its size and magnificence, I tell myself) that it promptly froze and crashed into the endless black void. In short, it turned itself off. Multiple tries failed to help; my computer had gone as far as it could.

Unfortunately, that means that I will never end up finishing Mass Effect. And this is sad, because what brought me to play the game was the announcement that the sequel would be coming to the Playstation 3, a system I own that is far more capable of playing current games than my laptop. For some reason, they aren't bringing the first Mass Effect to the PS3. Consequently, this won't be a review, but more an assessment of interesting themes, allegories, and features of Mass Effect that I found particularly interesting.

Interstellar Politics

One central subject within Mass Effect is interstellar politics; much time is spent with the various species of the galaxy, their approaches toward others, and their own national tendencies. Chief among them is the Citadel Council. Essentially, the Citadel Council is an empowered United Nations, governed by an executive body of three individuals, members of three particular species. Unlike our own UN, the qualifications for being a part of the Council are more rigorous. To be on the Citadel Council, your species must have the interests of order in mind and must be able to field fleets and armies with which to help enforce the peace. While this doesn't sound too different from the United Nations, the difference lies in the use of your species' fleets. You have to be prepared to spend your own resources on stopping conflicts as decreed by the Council, even if that conflict is lightyears away from your own worlds.

Essentially, I think that this is a major reason why our United Nations is so powerless. The UN Security Council's members (USA, Russia, Great Britain, China, and so on), aren't obligated by their presence on the Council to send their troops into areas that may need help or to avert a conflict. Actually, the UN Security Council seems to spend most of its time squabbling amongst themselves; their veto power allows them to completely halt investigation or action into wars, genocides, or confrontations. Consequently, Russia and China have had a habit of vetoing any action that imposes on the sovereignty of other nations (they don't want a precedent set that would potentially allow the United Nations to act on human rights abuses in their own countries). And the United States has vetoed any actions taken against Israel (whether that is justified or not is up to you).

Thus, I found the workings of the Citadel Council in Mass Effect to be quite interesting and, perhaps, enlightening. The Citadel Council, like the UN, has no offical power over those who are members or otherwise, and embassies are provided for those who are not members of the Council, allowing voices to be heard. Economic and moral interests serve to keep the Council from plotting against each other. No one Council member is powerful enough to overcome the other two, and their acknowledged authority allows them to pass judgement on violations of law and to solve government disputes. Essentially, it is the primary defender of international law and has, if necessary, the power to back it up. These are aspects that the United Nations lacks and arguably needs if it wants to become more influential and able to preserve peace and human rights in the world.

National Defense on a Galactic Scale

Mass Effect also touches on a strategic riddle that might exist for us when humanity decides to populate other planets; how does one prepare against attacks when facing the problem of defending hundreds of worlds across vast distances? This is a problem touched upon by the book, Ender's Shadow, if I remember correctly. Sadly, my memory of the answer from that book has faded, but if you are interested in the subject, that book offers some additional insight.

Basically, the problem lies in the fact that space is huge. It takes a long time to travel between planets, and one can't possibly garrison enough troops at each outpost without spreading one's forces hopelessly thin. Another issue is that space is not flat. Border outposts must include those on the outskirts of humanity's reach, both vertically and horizontally from the center (presumably the capital world). Thus, even defending border worlds can become a tricky prospect, as there are a lot more of them than there would be on the solid ground of Earth.

The way the Systems Alliance (the representative body of humans in Mass Effect) handles it is to provide only token garrison forces among planets. This is enough to police a world, but nothing more. As Sun Tzu once said, "He who tries to defend everything defends nothing."Thus it is that the Alliance positions its main fleet close to the center of humanity's galactic borders, in order to respond with unified, overwhelming force as quickly as possible once an attack has been launched. This strategy is one that is effective, its only caveat being the fact that the outpost invaded is usually conquered or has suffered heavy losses by the time the main fleet arrives. However, its sacrifice allows the Systems Alliance to almost certainly destroy the attacker, when it arrives, as an attacking force rarely includes the entirety of one's forces, particularly on a galactic scale.

I can't think of an overall strategy that would work better when defending many planets in space, so I would be very interested to see if men and women today decide to adopt a similar doctrine when we expand into space. Probably, won't happen in my lifetime though. Bollocks.

To be continued in Part 2

1 comment:

  1. "He who tries to defend everything defends nothing." Hit the nail on the head. Ansibles and offensive measures is how Card justified universal defense, even so far as the later Speaker books. But he also wrote in an AI of amazing cognizance to monitor other worlds for potential threats. Also: N7 4-Life!