Shepard, Pratchett, and the dream of the reasonable man.

by CulturalGeekGirl, last updated 26 Nov 2012 01:21

Ah, a Pratchett story. There's something so satisfying about 'em… especially the Ankh Morpork ones. Surrounded by chaos and strife, one reasonable man slightly out of his depth tries to get by, hoping to make everything work out sensibly. In the end he succeeds, the threat of destruction fades, and the world is a marginally more reasonable and tidy place.

This is how we all wish the real world worked. There are so many problems in life that could be solved by a single reasonable man, placed in a position where he can get things done. Look at the movie Dave - a mid 90s political comedy where a small businessman of unspecified party takes over for the President. In a climactic scene in the film, he sits down and goes over the budget, line-by-line, to try to find enough money to keep an important program open. Such a thing is impossible in our current political environment, but oh… what an idealized picture of the triumph of cleverness and reasonableness over partisanship and bureaucracy. It warms our hearts.

I'm not going to bring real world politics into this, beyond the vaguest and most hypothetical ideas, but there are reasons that a clever president can't just sit down and pull a Kevin Kline on our budget. First, it's because of congress. Even if the proposed changes are careful not to hurt any individual areas or districts, they would still very likely represent change and uncertainty, and as Vetinari once said "They think they want good government and justice for all, Vimes, yet what is it they really crave, deep in their hearts? Only that things go on as normal and tomorrow is pretty much like today." And it is our Vimeses, our Daves, that must struggle against that entropic tide.

But nothing swims against that tide like an honest-to-god, saved-our-collective-asses War Hero, coming into power at a time of chaos, ready to lead with an open heart and eyes for the future. That's the George Washington effect, and we're bloody lucky that ol' George was a pretty OK guy in most respects. The US would be a massively different country if he hadn't been a Paragon.

All right, this illustrative lesson on political cynicism is all well and good, but what does it have to do with Mass Effect?

Dragon Age: Origins - and the aftermath of the actions in Origins as shown in DA2 - told a story of the darkest and most cynical kind of political environment (at least for anyone who wasn't a human noble.) Even after saving the entire world, the forces of racism and prejudice prevent the Warden from getting anything else productive done. Any attempts to free the mages or give the Elves a home fizzle. The best that our Hero can do is keep tirelessly doing small-scale public service and try to protect her friends… and even that latter part proves impossible.

After Dragon Age gave us such a lovely, tragic picture of a hero struggling thanklessly in a world of ignorance and despair, I was hoping Mass Effect would show us the other side of the coin. I was hoping that Mass Effect would let us George Washington it up.

Our hypothetical ideal of the "reasonable man" doesn't just need to be reasonable and intelligent - he also needs to be broadly experienced, familiar with and sympathetic to the needs of people outside his own demographic group, and well-liked by a number of different factions. Mass Effect often felt like it was specifically moving Paragon Shepard along that path. We got to act on some of that in ME3, but the narrative effectiveness of that agency was drastically limited by both the context of the ongoing war and the implications of the various endings.

I cared more about Shepard living than I cared about my Warden living, and this is why. It's not about some sappy love story happily-ever-after, it's about a Pratchett ending to soothe my cynical heart and paint me a nice hopeful picture for once. I wanted the dream of the reasonable man - and Shepard was so reasonable, so interesting, so experienced, so multicultural, so completely perfect for that job1.

And this hypothetical Paragon Shep's future as president of the United States of the Galaxy2 would have a perfect foil in Renegade Shep's hypothetical future as the Emperor General of Earth and all her colonies, a conquering force for human dominance. Because the reason we can't give every leader the same power to shape our future as we gave George Washington is that some people are authoritarian dicks3.

I wanted to imagine a future where Paragon Shep is rolling up her sleeves and going line-by-line through the galactic budget, trying to find the funds to rebuild the Elcor home world while preventing the Krogan/Salarian conflict from breaking out into full-stage war. With that came the possibility of a future where Renegade shep leads a pro-earth Armada, "peacekeeping" and privateering his way across the galaxy.

Mass effect had the perfect opportunity to leave us with the dream of a powerful personality navigating a truly interesting political landscape, getting things done outside of the monarchical context in which most RPG leaders capable of enacting change operate.

Instead we're left with a narrow world where the most interesting decisions have all been obviated by a unilateral edict, where most of the interesting questions posed by the series are reduced to historical footnotes.

It's the loss of that wide-open future that I mourn most of all.

And I'm not saying that there's no room in that future for a little house on Rannoch, or an apartment on Omega, or a beach on the Hanar Homeworld. I wanted a world of options, of dreams, of tales untold. I wanted an open horizon and a ready ship.

I wanted potential.

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