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female Shepard fighting aliens with an Omni Blade in Mass Effect Legendary Edition Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts

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Mass Effect’s revival reminds us it’s time to abolish the space police

What would it mean to defund the Normandy?

What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.

After the wave of protests last summer following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (among others), the topic of defunding the police began to see more frequent and serious public discussion. Several city councils even introduced measures to reallocate police funds to social programs with vastly inferior budgets. Police corruption, which had previously been glossed over by reformist appeals to root out the few bad apples, was finally cracked wide open, revealing the racist structural rot underlying the entire institution. Maybe policing, as a concept, was bad? Maybe it couldn’t be reformed, but should be abolished instead.

The far-reaching fallout from these traumatic events and revelations wound up affecting the world of entertainment, notably including NBC’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine. A show in the creative lineage of other workplace sitcoms like The Office and Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is about a fictional police precinct in Brooklyn, staffed by a young and diverse crew of wisecracking cops. Despite being a far cry from Oakley-stunting, tactical vest-wearing, thick-necked white male depictions of police, the characters on the show could not escape the reckoning sweeping through the media landscape. It became the subject of viral tweets and a Collider article asking the question of whether subsequent seasons of the show might not see the beloved cast transferred to an entirely different and depoliticized line of work, like becoming firefighters, post office workers, or even public school teachers.

The Collider piece paints a compelling picture of the show’s root problem: What happens when we love a story’s characters but hate the ideological foundation of their jobs? Can the two even be separated?

BioWare’s famous space opera trilogy, Mass Effect — now packaged into the single Legendary Edition and released on modern consoles — arguably suffers from a similar problem. These games experienced runaway popularity at their height and retain a dedicated fan base to this day. The Legendary Edition is proof enough that there remains a lasting sense of goodwill toward the franchise, enough to invest the time and energy needed to update and re-release it.

But when most fans reminisce about what they truly love about the games, it’s the memorable relationships between the young, diverse cast of characters that they tend to bring up. Less warm recollection is spent on the jobs these characters hold, which exist (in various forms) in the military arms of the galaxy’s major political players. Whether it’s as Earth Alliance Military, Cerberus Commandos, or reinstated Alliance Navy Officers, Shepard and their crew are always some version of glorified space cops. They travel the galaxy, maintain security, and enforce order, while largely being unaccountable to any power beyond their own.

aiming at a Reaper ship in Mass Effect: Legendary Edition Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts

How, then, might an abolitionist perspective impact a series like Mass Effect? What new jobs might Shepard and their crewmates be assigned that would still allow them their camaraderie, their heart-wrenching moments of dramatic tension? How do we take these rich instances of sci-fi melodrama and extract them from the unseemly and violent drudgery of enforcing order across a vast and chaotic frontier? How do we move away from a premise that simplifies the Lovecraftian mystery of the Reapers into interchangeable robo-zombies to be shot at from behind chest-high barriers? A premise that neatly classifies a vast plethora of alien races into categories of the law-abiding and the lawless — one group to romance, another to gun down within the dimly lit corridors of space stations?

As a package, Mass Effect doesn’t immediately resemble modern American policing. Rather than a neighborhood beat, Shepard patrols light-years of space. Their crew is made up of aliens, robots, and humans of many different races and genders (though, it is worth noting, Black women are absent). Their remit is truly limitless, ranging from noir-inspired detective cases to terrorist attacks to full-blown military skirmishes.

Yet like most science fiction, Mass Effect models its far-flung fantasies on the structures of our own society. The form of government that rules over the game’s setting is a familiar, seemingly liberal one. An alliance of Earth nations cooperates with a more powerful council that represents the other dominant alien societies (Space-NATO, if you will). Unlike the apparently authoritarian bent of the ancient Prothean empire that came before, Mass Effect’s contemporary universe resembles our own, both in structure and in messaging. Freedom of choice, as a concept, is cherished (or at least, the illusion of it is). Individual freedoms and representative democracy are apparently the standard.

But these supposedly enlightened modes of rule come with the heavy arm of law and order firmly attached. In his book A Critical Theory of Police Power, Mark Neocleous argues that “the genius of liberalism was to make the police appear as an independent, non-partisan agency simply enforcing the law and protecting all citizens equally from crime.” He adds later that “the existence of discretion allows the state [...] to appear as standing at arms-length from the processes of administration and thus the policing of civil society.”

Ashley Williams wearing pink and white marine armor in Mass Effect Legendary Edition Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts

Standing in stark contrast to the Citadel Council’s seemingly measured and cautious form of governance, Shepard’s driven and hegemonic power hogs the spotlight. They are given free rein to do what the Council is unwilling to be seen as doing: keep everyone in line. Regardless of their various official titles, Shepard acts with the approval of the galaxy’s ruling powers, who give them total discretion. How else would you describe the events of Mass Effect 2, in which Shepard comes back from the dead, now working for Cerberus — a violent pro-human organization labeled as terrorists by the Council — and is allowed to continue operating pretty much the same as before? And when they return to the fold in the third game, they’re never taken to task or made to account for their previous decisions. This is because Shepard’s power is a police power. It is a form of power, as Neocleous puts it, that “persistently manages to break through any parameters imposed on it.”

This being the case, it seems pretty appropriate to view Mass Effect through an abolitionist lens. Like the police forces of the liberal West that so often cross the line and tragically resort to violence, Shepard explains away their own brash and violent behavior as a regretful necessity. In fact, like cops in real life, whose “special status as the sole legitimate users of force has contributed to a mindset of ‘them against us,’” as Alex S. Vitale describes it in his book The End of Policing, Shepard tends to aggressively defend the need for their reckless and hyperviolent approach. In one scene, they rail against a news reporter who tries to challenge their narrative. They’re also endlessly impatient with the Council’s caution and its natural distrust of the upstart human race. Despite the later games’ increased focus on maintaining relationships and navigating ethical quagmires, Shepard will always remain a burning point of white-hot light, unable and unwilling to slow down and reflect on the consequences of their behavior.

In discussing the hypothetical career changes of Jake Peralta, Charles Boyle, Amy Santiago, and the rest of the characters from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the Collider piece suggests that there is little thematic connection between the characters’ lives and their status as police officers. But this rings false, considering how much of the show is committed to the “copaganda” of valorizing police work. When they’re not up to zany hijinks at the precinct, the officers of Brooklyn Nine-Nine are out solving crimes and catching criminals. This is pure fantasy, a fabricated depiction of what police actually do, which falls more along the lines of harassing the homeless and mentally ill, and profiling and frisking young Black men. At its root, the show’s purpose is to defend and uphold the myth that police are our guardians. It’s a myth that contributes to the “self-serving and convenient obfuscation,” as Neocleous puts it, citing historian V.A.C. Gatrell, that “the police are concerned first and foremost with crime.”

Even when Brooklyn Nine-Nine tries to address police wrongdoing, such as in an episode where Terry Crews’ character is accosted by a racist fellow cop, it reduces the problem to one bad apple who needs to be reported, leaving the system itself intact and reified.

Mass Effect is equally invested in defending Shepard’s role as galactic super cop, as the man or woman upon whose shoulders all of galactic security rests. From the earliest moments of the first game, you are told that the galaxy is on the verge of violent chaos, even if you are rarely actually shown it. Rest assured that, outside the boundaries of “civilized” space, there are pirates, slavers, and other bogeymen, which unaccountable figures like the Spectres must fight against.

a Reaper ship attacks in Mass Effect Legendary Edition Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts

Once the Reaper threat is established in Mass Effect, it takes over the remainder of the games’ plot as the ur-concern. Here, in convenient all caps, is a challenge not just to the Council’s political hegemony, but to the very fabric of civilization. It’s hard to argue against Shepard needing to discard the rules and considerations of the status quo, against them needing to utilize every tool in their violent arsenal in order to face this massive threat. Unquestioned is why only Shepard can fill this role, why only they can be the one to ultimately decide what is to be done with trillions of souls. “Part of the illusion of security is that we are meant to bow down before it without even asking what it is or how it came to be granted such a status, just as we are expected to bow down before the police power that claims to secure us,” Neocleous says.

This dynamic plays out in the ways in which Shepard relates to the rest of their crewmates as well. When not serving as appendages to Shepard’s will, Shepard’s comrades will often bring their own personal dilemmas and problems to the table. Yet they usually rely on Shepard to make the final decisions about how to handle their issues. It is Shepard who has ultimate agency over how they live out their lives. They play defense attorney for a helpless Tali facing the accusations of her own people. They decide what happens to Thane’s criminal son, Samara’s criminal daughter, and Jacob’s criminal dad, to stay on theme.

Policing is about power, the power to maintain order using one’s maximum discretion. In providing police with such a free mandate, we make the trusting assumption that they will always make the correct decision. When they make a mistake, as they inevitably and often do, there are very few mechanisms with which to punish them. This makes the police — like the government it represents — a fundamentally paternalistic organization, one in which we are to place all our faith so that it may secure our lives (though only in the ways that it sees fit).

Knowing all this, it’s difficult to picture a version of Mass Effect without a centered and paternalistic Shepard. What is Mass Effect if you remove this figure who is established to police both political and personal boundaries?

The themes of order and hierarchy thread their way through every layer of the narrative, determining who is cherished and who is vilified. Even though the games go to great lengths to establish the diversity and rich variety of the galaxy, it remains a divided and unequal place. The Citadel and the main worlds you visit tend to be populated by select, respectable civilizations. Rarely do you visit the “lesser” worlds populated by alien races like the Batarians, who only tend to show up in combat zones as interchangeable cannon fodder, or in background stories as cartoonish villains threatening innocent colonists. They lash out from beyond the borders of settled space at the elites living in the center, a permanent criminal underclass. An underclass that arguably encompasses any alien who isn’t lucky enough to be a part of Shepard’s crew on the Normandy.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine - Captain Holt, Peralta, Santiago
Holt (Andre Braugher), Peralta (Andy Samberg), and Santiago (Melissa Fumero) on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Photo: Fox

Just as Brooklyn Nine-Nine would not be the same show if it didn’t use its plotlines to valorize cops, Mass Effect would not be the same game if it stripped away its militaristic aesthetics and was led by someone other than its quasi-fascistic super soldier.

The intractability of this format comes down to a limit of imagination. Just as it is difficult to imagine a world like ours free from state violence, savage individualism, and insurmountable hierarchies, it is equally difficult to envision a game like Mass Effect where you are not playing as the ultimate securing force, the one who gets to put everything back in its place.

“The ideological work that the prison performs,” Angela Davis writes in Are Prisons Obsolete?, is that it “relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society.” Games often perform a similar function. Shooting everything into place is the path of least resistance, and the one so often taken. But that doesn’t mean other paths are impossible.

You can explore a vibrant and colorful galaxy without serving as its enforcing power. You can experience these complex narrative systems in satisfying ways without requiring all final decisions to be subject to your own approval. It’s all possible, but it requires courageous vision, as well as hope and trust in others. Mass Effect lends rhetorical support to this cause, particularly in its endings, which aim for “peace across the galaxy” while also arguing that a lone, unaccountable hero is the one to deliver it to us. In reality, it is only we, as players and as people, who must find our own way toward a better world.