Review: Starlink

My initial impressions of Starlink: Battle for Atlas proved to be a pretty accurate indicator of how I’d feel about the game as a whole. It remained fun and colorful, and the act of exploring the star system remained a delight throughout, but it was not a perfect game.

As I mentioned in that first post, I opted to play through the game on easy mode, and this meant that combat was a low-risk, low-stress activity. Despite that, some sub-bosses (typically those guarding special relics hidden on each world) proved to be truly challenging, and those fights were the most interesting, largely because I was often encountering higher-level enemies earlier than I otherwise would, and because those fights were often in interesting environments that rewarded navigation-as-evasion in somewhat cramped spaces. But combat as a whole began to feel repetitive. There were certain strategies and weapons to keep in mind with certain types of enemies. The legions of ground troops (pun intended: the enemy robots are in an army known as the Legion) largely fell into only a few different types: fire, ice, and gravity-warping. Figure them out, and it’s a simple matter to address most fights.

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Big bosses were similarly limited in variety, although there was at least an interesting cycle to addressing them. Dreadnought starships are colossal vessels placed around the star system, which release Primes, huge arachnoid mechs, that attempt to corrupt worlds by activating and spreading Extractors, towers that extract valuable resources from the planet’s core. Extractors remotely transmit energy generated from the harvested materials to the roving Primes, making them bigger and more powerful; Primes pass on some of that energy to the Dreadnought stationed within their sector of the star system, thus improving its power in turn. The best route to take to free a sector is thus to clear out each planet in that sector one by one, shutting down Extractors to locate a Prime before moving on to the next world, eventually leaving the Dreadnought weakened. This balance of powers is interesting in concept but boring in execution, since you once more reach a point where you are just dealing with the same three recycled enemy types again and again: surface towers guarded by beam-emitting nodes and occasionally mid-to-high-level Legion forces, mobile spider-mechs (which do at least offer variety through their evolving forms as they grow in power, although this is a linear and repetitive trajectory too), and space battles against fighters and turrets followed by on-rails races to take out the power cores on the capital ships.

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Dreadnoughts will redeploy Primes as time passes, and (in the endgame at least) new Dreadnoughts will eventually enter the system to replace their defeated comrades. Apparently the spread of the Legion is determined by difficulty level, so a higher-difficulty play-through could make things more interesting (or maybe just more tedious). Each world can gain Alliance power, providing you more resources and better resisting the Legion, if you clear out Legion emplacements and build and upgrade structures. These structures are limited and serve specific purposes, like showing more of the planet map, generating revenue, producing mods for your ships, or increasing the defensive capabilities of the planet. The back-and-forth tension between Alliance and Legion provides one of the clearest sources of comparison to Mass Effect 3–though this system at least feels simpler and obviously involves a lot less territory.

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(Actually, Mass Effect feels like a heavy reference point for the game–see the lore entries below for further examples.)

Still, while the game does not offer an extraordinary strategic element, and while its combat and side missions are repetitive, it remained consistently fun. I really liked flying around as Fox. I liked the chatter between the characters on the Starlink and Star Fox teams over the comms. I liked scanning new creatures and discovering new artifacts. I enjoyed simply zipping through the skies of any given planet and observing the unusual terrain and towering biological, artificial, and geological structures rising from the surface.

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All the above fits in with my earlier conception of the game. There’s plenty of good with the bad, and the game itself does not get boring despite the repetition and simplistic elements. But the biggest letdown for me was in the development (or lack thereof) of the characters and story.

The game immediately introduces us to the core cast of the Starlink Initiative. They’re unique, distinctive, and likable. They all bring something to the table, and they all have a lot of flair and personality. When their leader, St. Grand, is captured by the cult that has taken command of the Legion, the team’s heartbreak is real, and I was totally behind their drive to recover this obvious father figure. Similarly, the Star Fox team is characterized such that each member of the team has a clear and unique personality and role: Fox is the pure-hearted leader who will always fight for good, Falco is the cocky ace pilot, Peppy is the overly cautious mentor who’s past ready to retire, and Slippy is the goofy tech genius and support character. They’re written and voiced such that they feel like they’ve actually known each other a long time and are a sort of family of their own; the silly back-and-forth between Slippy and Peppy was exceptionally delightful for me.

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But the characters don’t really evolve! Brilliant scientist Mason Rana, who designed the swappable Starlink tech, has the most presence on screen and is given the clearest arc, which makes sense; he’s the default pilot for the player. That arc is somewhat mundane, ultimately: he gains in confidence and steps out of his mentor St. Grand’s shadow to become a capable leader in his own right. Everyone else is largely in the background of this surrogate family, just glad to be along for the ride. But that surrogate family keeps growing, with more and more alien pilots, some of them having brief introductory interactions to explain their appearances, some of them apparently just showing up in the background of cinematic cutscenes. I didn’t know who everyone was by the end, but long before that I stopped understanding why so many of the new characters bothered to join. The game’s moving too fast and loose to bother nailing down these points.

The pacing of the plot doesn’t really lead anywhere, either. Here’s a very spoiler-heavy summary of the plot: the team recovers St. Grand, who was used by the Legion cult to make the rare refined fuel Nova (since he had rediscovered how and the secret was lost to most of the galaxy); St. Grand dies, apparently as a result of the side effects of the mind control he’d been briefly placed under; the team seeks to avenge St. Grand and liberate the star system; and at the end, the cult leader becomes part of some mech or something and a lone fighter shoots him a lot to save the day. I’m leaving out very little, mostly some side quests meant to dole out character background information, which for some reason is presented in cutscenes that are in a motion-comic style, instead of the cinematic scenes used for the main plot.

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Sadly, the Star Fox storyline is also abruptly rushed to a conclusion. Spoilers again: Wolf intends to build an army of Primes to take over Corneria, but Fox and friends figure it out and blow up his interstellar ship before he can escape, leaving him to flee in a damaged fighter with his tail between his legs. The team then decides to stay on with the Starlink group to clear the system of the Legion threat.

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The game ends all too quickly, and you’re allowed to keep wandering the star system, exploring more and clearing out remaining Legion encampments. Surviving Legion captains will continue to launch Dreadnaughts into the system to create a perpetual loop of combat scenarios. There’s stuff to do, but it all feels rather empty and pointless.

The thing is, these weaknesses are so predictable, at least in retrospect. It’s a toys-to-life, open-world game. The goal of the game is to provide a playground for kids to zoom around with their toy collection. It’s going to provide a variety of pilots and ships and weapons to encourage players to buy more and more of the toys, even if you don’t need to buy more to beat the core story. (Some of the elemental puzzles you’d have to unlock to 100% the game would require other elemental weapons or at least a lot of tedious transportation of canisters between sites). And because the game company wants you to buy lots of pilots and ships, they’re going to give you glimpses of those pilots and ships–really unique ship and alien designs can provide those glimpses without requiring a lot of time spent on characterizing these additional pilots in the story. This also means that there can’t ever be any real narrative stakes for the characters: killing a character or blowing up a ship can only happen if that character or ship won’t be available in the player’s toy box, to swap in at any time.

The open-world endgame feels empty because it’s there to let the player throw in different pilot and ship combinations without having to start the game from scratch. You can build on the RPG-lite leveling of pilots and ships, the modifications of fuselages and wings and weapons. And the ever-present potential for the recurrence of an external threat always presents the possibility of additional content to purchase in the future.

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This does not make the game bad. But it is unappealing to me. And it should have been obvious to me because that’s what the game’s basic design model would require.

So at this point, I don’t think I’ll play through the game on a higher difficulty. And I don’t think I’d increase the difficulty in my current save just to see what the higher Legion threat looks like in the endgame. I could see myself returning to Starlink at some point in the future, just to cruise about the system. For now, the 20-ish hours I’ve put in seem sufficient, and I’m not particularly hungry for more.

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That said, what I really want is to see an open-world Star Fox game that scraps the toys-to-life model and focuses on a meatier narrative set in the Lylat System. Starlink shows that this should work, and I think it also shows that good characters and good gameplay can only take a game like this so far; there still have to be engaging narratives (in and out of the main story) that make player actions feel worthwhile.

Starting Starlink

I finally started Starlink: Battle for Atlas. I mostly just wanted to make that announcement. It was back in October that I claimed that Starlink would be my next game purchase, and that did not end up being true. But I’m really excited to finally get to the game, and I’m enjoying it so far! It’s like an all-ages Mass Effect 3 limited in scope to a single star system, with a very light version of the exploration and scanning of life forms on colorful planets demonstrated in No Man’s Sky (no, I never played it, but I did enjoy watching game footage for a while), and inhabited by a rich cast of humans, aliens, and anthropomorphic animals such that it feels a little like a teasing glimpse of Beyond Good and Evil 2 (which is, after all, another Ubisoft title).

I started it on normal, then restarted it on easy, I’m embarrassed to admit. Two factors impact the difficulty: (1) it’s actually important to explore and do a little bit of “grinding,” though it doesn’t really feel a grind, on each world to level your pilot and craft; and (2) the weight of the docked toy ship and the tiny analog sticks of the Joy-Cons have combined to finally yield a situation where the Switch’s default docked control scheme doesn’t feel very comfortable for me. Well, okay, there’s a third reason: I’m getting older and suckier at games. Still, if I’d realized the first factor before restarting, I imagine I would have found normal fairly manageable most of the time, and I’m coasting through easy. Which is nice, in a way! I could always start another save slot later to inch up the difficulty, and I can focus for now on exploration, story, and characters. And I enjoy all that!

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It’s also fun to play as Fox McCloud on easy because he just seems that much more of an ace pilot even in my incompetent hands, ever the true hero. Playing as Fox from the beginning, I’m experiencing Starlink more as a Star Fox game than an original property. While having the toy model of an Arwing is fun, and I actually enjoy the swapping out of weaponry, I doubt I’ll ever really buy into the purchase of other pilots, ships, and firepower. So far, besides encountering the occasional gravity-based power-up that I can’t unlock with my current set of weaponry, I haven’t really been prevented from doing anything in the game. The toys-to-life concept remains a gimmick, but at least there’s nothing here requiring it to become an expensive gimmick.

Where the game really shines for me is in its rewarding exploration, distinctive characters and setting, and great use of the Star Fox property. The Star Fox team feels fully integrated into the game, even though playing primarily as Star Fox leads to the sort of funny result that this mercenary band has become involved in actively fixing the core team’s problems even more so than the original protagonists. And while I like the new characters, I really love the Star Fox team’s depiction in the game; Ubisoft nailed the right tone and team dynamic here. It’s hard not to see the game as proof-of-concept for a pure Star Fox open-world game. The free-range starfighter combat works great, a natural extension from the arcade-style flight of the Star Fox series, and I could easily see a lot of the same design applied to exploring the Lylat system.

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Having had the gradually worsening experience of Little Dragons Café in recent memory, I don’t want to get overly excited too early on. I can see some things that could get boring. The local missions you can request are of a limited variety. There are only a few types of megafauna on each planet, and the body types seem moulded around only a half dozen builds. But on easy mode, I’ve yet to have to spend so much time on a planet preparing for the next world to get bored. On a higher difficulty, the game would offer more rewarding combat challenges, which might mean the recycled mission structures wouldn’t grow tired so quickly. It’s hard to say at this point.

I think, unless something really sours me on the game later on, that this probably deserves at least two play-throughs. Yes, my first time is devoted to Fox, but a second experience that gives the core cast time to shine is probably needed. Even scooting everywhere in an Arwing as part of Star Fox, I’m still enjoying the camaraderie shared by the Starlink Initiative team.

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I’m sure I’ll have more to say before long!

Review: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War declares a firm commitment by Marvel to the same old entertaining bullshit.

I enjoyed myself for most of the film. Our many, many superheroes are iconic figures played by A-level talents who have all had at least a couple attempts now to hone their performances in their respective roles. Meanwhile, the supporting, non-super-heroic cast is sprawling, such that, while I detected no standout bad (or good) performance, this may have more to do with the relative lack of screen time of any specific character. The dialogue is great, full of that predictably witty and sarcastic Marvel formula. No matter how serious the movie gets, we have a lot of really fun banter, especially from post-Ragnarok Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy (some of my favorite lines are when Mantis, attempting to sound serious, proudly announces that the Guardians are about “kicking names and taking ass,” and when Thor at another point in the film responds heroically to a threat of being killed by saying that it’ll only happen if he dies). And a very special treat for the first third or so of the movie, before everything becomes so seriously world-ending, is that film score, visuals, and dialogue combine to give little tastes of the respective mood/feel of each superhero franchise. Our first glimpse of the Guardians, for instance, is delightfully refreshing and even a little silly–down to the bright white location card that pops onscreen, pointlessly declaring that we are in “SPACE.”

The Russo brothers-helmed film has a lot of pulse-pounding excitement, some surprises (including one minor jump scare), and plenty of tension to keep one’s eyes glued to the screen from start to finish. We have yet another Marvel movie here in the new trend of actually defining an interesting and engaging villain; in fact, the whole film revolves around giant-jawed, purple-skinned Thanos (sympathetically portrayed by Josh Brolin) in his quest to collect all the Infinity Stones to “save” life in the universe by cutting it in half. It’s a sociopath’s superheroism, and Thanos truly believes in the rightness of his cause. His hulking brute strength combined with a crafty wit and ferocious dedication to a twisted, apocalyptic ideology remind me, of all things, of Tom Hardy’s turn as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

It’s a slick production with a good deal of pathos, and yet the end left me feeling very little more than minor annoyance and reflected all of my worst thoughts about this franchise.


Big spoilers follow. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I hope you’ll come back to read the second part after you have, as I have some strong thoughts about the ending and about the film’s apparent central theme.


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By the end of the film, we see Thanos succeed. Half of the universe’s population is wiped out, at random. This includes a good deal of Marvel heroes. By my count, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Bruce Banner (with a Hulk too angry or embarrassed to come out anymore), War Machine, and Rocket the Raccoon of all people are the ones who come out alive (Hawkeye and Ant-Man accepted house arrest after the Civil War fallout, we are told, so we don’t know what happened to them). We lose all the other heroes. This could be a darkly powerful ending, but with so many character deaths and in such a magic way, it is all too obvious that those deaths are meaningless. They will be reset. There’s plenty of evidence to support this.

Exhibit A: Dr. Strange knows that Thanos can never have the Time Stone. He tells Tony that he’ll let anyone die rather than hand the Time Stone over. When Thanos prepares to kill Stark, Dr. Strange relents and hands the Time Stone over. He later tells Stark that this was the only way, before being eradicated from existence. We know that Strange saw millions of futures, and there was only one in which they succeeded against Thanos. This strongly suggests that Strange knew the only desperate way to defeat Thanos was to let him win for now. (We also know that Stark and Thanos share some sort of mental connection, some sort of knowing, and so Iron Man could be critical to finally defeating Thanos.) The Time Stone can reverse events that have already happened and change the outcome; altogether, the Infinity Stones have a lot of strange magical properties. It would not be surprising if there was a way to reverse even mass-scale outcomes.

Exhibit B: Peter Parker is one of the ones who are killed by Thanos’s death wish. This was the one death in the finale that truly moved my wife and I–Tom Holland is a great young actor, and his final moments in the film are those of a too-young soldier fearful of death yet determined to be heroic and honorable even in the end. He’s pathetic and sweet and endearing. It’s a death that lingers long enough to kick you in the teeth. Here’s the thing, though: Tom Holland is already coming back for another Spider-Man movie. And we know that the next film starring Peter Parker will mark the beginning of the new phase of Marvel movies. If Peter Parker isn’t dead for good, then it would seem that any other character death is just as reversible.

Exhibit C: While still rather speculative, there should be a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 around 2020. This despite the fact that all the Guardians but Rocket are dead. I doubt we’ll see a whole new set of Guardians to fill out the final film in a very Star Lord-focused trilogy, so this suggests that they’ll make their way back somehow.

Exhibit D: The surviving characters are mostly the older, iconic film characters whose actors have already been around in way too many movies. Some of these actors, at least, have to be ready to move on. Meanwhile, new fan favorites like Black Panther are killed off. There’s no way that Disney would let T’Challa slink off forever in the five-second ending he had in this film.

In short, the ending just doesn’t feel right, doesn’t give enough dramatic emphasis for the deaths of so many characters (especially since some are still relatively new to the screen), and is contradicted by Marvel’s release schedule. Marvel’s too damn greedy to let audiences believe for more than the end of the film that these characters are dead. And frankly, I think it’s somewhat of an insult to audiences’ intelligences that the filmmakers thought that anyone would be fooled by this for any length of time.

This is the true Marvel bullshit. They want to tell big, dramatic stories with serious consequences–without having to hold to the consequences (hm…having consequences, but…without the consequences?). Comic book events, including big crossover stories in the style of Infinity War, of course often have characters die to stir up sales. But this crass drama-generation shouldn’t have been adapted into the films. Every time a character dies and returns later on, it cheapens the use of death in the narrative. Comics need to keep going and constantly have shifts in creative direction, so it is a little more forgivable in that format. But on film, we have only so many titles coming out in a year (even if that number seems to be ever-increasing), and movies have the benefit of being self-sustaining stories. They should be self-sustaining stories, evaluated on their own merits, even if part of a larger arc or franchise. Let this universe, let these films, at least have consequence!

Instead, Infinity War is already obviously just one more link in a larger chain. All the movies inform each other and become dependent upon each other. All the movies just set up the next link in the story. All the movies are fundamentally safe. (This is frustrating to me because nothing about a shared universe requires all stories to be dependent upon each other. It’s a shared universe–other shit can be happening! We can just have small connections; see, for example, Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle.)

I see two major deaths staying permanent in this film: Loki and Gamora. Both are killed not by the power of the Infinity Stones but in key moments earlier in the film. Loki’s death is repeatedly emphasized as likely permanent, and we are given time watching him die and observing his body such that it most certainly does not seem reversible (unlike every other Loki death). Gamora’s death was in exchange for a Soul Stone, and while I could see her return to life being part of how everyone gets out of the current predicament, she dramatically serves as a motivator for Star Lord (and surely will continue to serve as such once he gets re-materialized) and a symbol of the sacrifices that Thanos will make for his cause. (Yes, I’m uncomfortable with Gamora becoming a sentient MacGuffin to motivate male characters and to be bartered for yet another MacGuffin.)

More generally, I also think that the entire Asgardian refugee population is gone for good. Which is really a damn shame and disrupts all that happened in Ragnarok. It’s like how Alien 3 killed off Newt and Hicks in its opening moments, thereby subverting the dramatic impact of Ripley’s development over the course of the previous film (interestingly, the Aliens franchise is explicitly referenced by Spider-Man in this installment). It also means that Heimdall is killed off in the blink of an eye, and characters like Valkyrie and Korg apparently die entirely off-screen, without even a mention in Infinity War. Argh!

Other than that, I suspect that all deaths caused directly by Thanos’s Infinity-Stone-powered final wish will be reversed. Maybe they’re not dead at all, just in another universe now. Maybe the death can be reverted or set back. Maybe there’s some other option to undo what has been done. But that’s what will happen, and I’m fairly certain: there will be an undoing. A lessening, or even cancellation, of the horrible cost.

Not that I want the characters to be dead! But don’t kill off all the characters just to get audiences to hopefully stick around for yet another movie, especially if that death won’t mean anything lasting. Let the movie be its own thing, its own film. This ending means that Infinity War will always be dependent upon the next Avengers film, rather than its own story. It’s not a cliffhanger so much as a colossal failure with resultant mass loss of life that could only be “fixed” if what happens at the end is changed.

I’m not overall opposed to many of the creative choices that were made in this film. I really liked Thanos as a villain, which I wouldn’t have guessed. He’s a sociopath, but he believes that he is morally right, making hard choices in an uncaring universe. He explains mid-film that he once realized his own people were depleting their resources, resulting in inequality and eventual self-destruction without a course correction. He offered to the leaders of his world a random genocide, where citizens are executed at random, across all classes and all backgrounds. The resource load would be eased, and survival of life on his planet would be ensured. But his people rejected his plan, and the doom he foresaw came to pass. Seeing this as his failure to achieve his first destiny, he pursues his plan on a galactic scale. The Infinity Stones will see the completion of his work, instantly halving the populations of all inhabited worlds. It’s cruel, but it’s essentially a controlled kill-off on a galactic scale, and Thanos seems to have the motivations of Jor-El and Zod by way of Man of Steel, the Reapers of Mass Effect, and the leaders of the simulated war in Star Trek‘s “A Taste of Armageddon” episode from the original series.

Most interestingly, Thanos recognizes that he has to be willing to sacrifice everything close to him to achieve his goals. The superheroes are not quite so willing to do that. They are heroes because they fight for the weak and the innocent, because they value human life, because they’re willing to sacrifice themselves but not others. This leads to something that feels like a plot hole but is really just a telling weakness of the heroes. Vision is powered by an Infinity Stone. If the Avengers destroy the stone, they stop Thanos, but they kill Vision. Vision is willing to make the sacrifice, but the Avengers insist that they are not willing to just take his life, even with half the galaxy at stake. Instead, they try to remove the stone, and they put off destroying it (and killing Vision) until the last second. By doing so, they are undone; Thanos sees where and how Vision is killed, and he is simply able to walk up to the spot and reverse time the few moments necessary to recover the stone and kill Vision himself. In contrast, when Thanos must sacrifice one he loves to obtain the Soul Stone, he mournfully gives up Gamora without hesitation. He believes in the moral goodness of what he is doing and so knows that the loss of one, even one that he loves, is balanced by the greater good that he will do in ending resource scarcity and avoiding the total extermination of human life.

That’s an interesting theme. In all the explosions and banter, it ends up as a nagging thread in the background. But since we know that the end of the film lacks true consequence, all the deaths seem incredibly cheap and trivial. Since we know that the heroes will find another way to restore balance, Thanos’s sacrifices seem pointless. The heroes will find another way, a third option; they’ll do so even though the first Avengers was meant to show them (and the audience) that sometimes the only option left is sacrifice or failure.

Disturbingly, the choices of the Avengers also mean that the advanced society of Wakanda is decimated, its already weakened armies suffering heavy losses in the fight to protect Vision. Where Black Panther was wonderfully post-colonial in its messaging, Infinity War asserts the spectacle of the bloodshed of black people on behalf of one android (who chooses to appear as a white man). If it was the Avengers alone fighting for their friend, that could be justified. It’s harder to see how they can view sacrificing a nation for one man as a moral act. They knowingly sacrifice dozens of lives, maybe even hundreds, for that one man, just as a mere delaying tactic. That’s pretty gross and hard to reconcile with the film’s dominant theme or with what a hero should be.

That leaves one final thought for me, though: why not use the Infinity Stones to merely increase available resources? One could say that life would just continue to expand to deplete those resources, but the same could be true of life in a galaxy where half of it has been wiped out. In years or decades or centuries or millennia, we could end up back at the status quo. I suspect that the answer is that Thanos believes (or knows) that the Infinity Stones can only alter the universe, but cannot add to it. They cannot make something out of nothing, perhaps. If that’s the case, maybe Thanos hopes the second problem (that resource depletion will arise again) will be so far off that he will be viewed in a favorable light and that someone else will take up his mantle. Or maybe he just wants to kill people and feel good about doing so.

I suppose that Infinity War did make me think. But it made creative choices that I must earnestly disagree with. And rather than leaving the theater with a strong reaction–of joy or grief or anger–I left with only mild, blank irritation, which is probably the biggest condemnation that I could level against this film.

Infinity War: More Marvel, More the Same, Forever.

Supranational government in Mass Effect

As I continue to set up this new blog and decide how I want to handle frequency of new posts, I’ve decided to post some older blog entries from my days as a solo attorney. My posts on my law firm site already got a little weird–I can become a little preoccupied with my personal interests, what can I say. Below is one of those older posts, slightly revised and adapted for this new site.


In BioWare’s Mass Effect series, humanity is collectively led by the Systems Alliance. The Systems Alliance controls the interstellar military spaceships and colonial military garrisons, invests in scientific research and appears to regulate trade, and sends an ambassador (and, in later games, a council member) to the Citadel Council, which is in turn a governmental body responsible for maintaining diplomatic relations between the various species who have sought representation with the Council.

The codex entries in the Mass Effect games provide a considerable bit of context for the Systems Alliance. In the first game’s entry for Earth, the codex notes that the planet “is still divided among nation-states, though all are affiliated beneath the overarching banner of the Systems Alliance.” The third game, taking place amid the Reaper invasion, explains that the “militaries of Earth’s disparate nation-states have retained only partial communication with the Systems Alliance Fleets, leaving the planet’s resistance efforts uncoordinated and vulnerable.” So we know that there are still several nations on Earth, each with their own military forces, and we can presume that they have their own rules of law and their own cultures. These latter assumptions are supported in the first game’s Earth codex entry with the following: “Advanced nations have eliminated most genetic disease and pollution. Less fortunate regions have not progressed beyond 20th century technology, and are often smog-choked, overpopulated slums.”

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The Systems Alliance logo.

The codex entry for the Systems Alliance delves into more detail about the structure of the organization:

The Systems Alliance is an independent supranational government representing the interests of humanity as a whole. The Alliance is responsible for the governance and defense of all extra-solar colonies and stations.

The Alliance grew out of the various national space programs as a matter of practicality. Sol’s planets had been explored and exploited through piecemeal national efforts. The expense of colonizing entire new solar systems could not be met by any one country. With humans knowing that alien contact was inevitable, there was enough political will to jointly fund an international effort.

Still, the Alliance was often disregarded by those on Earth until the First Contact War. While the national governments dithered and bickered over who should lead the effort to liberate Shanxi, the Alliance fleet struck decisively. Post-War public approval gave the Alliance the credibility to establish its own Parliament and become the galactic face of humanity.

This suggests an amazing amount of power and responsibility. The Systems Alliance, originally meant to oversee colonization of new planets, came to represent all humans in interactions with other alien races. The Systems Alliance controlled the humans’ space-faring military. The Systems Alliance would negotiate new colonial interests, and the level of colonial protection would be dictated by the Systems Alliance. The scale of governance is so vast that massive nations suddenly seem like municipal governments. And to a large extent, an individual nation’s “foreign policy” becomes a muzzled issue, not necessarily by limiting the scope of traditional interactions, but by preventing a single nation from attempting to engage with another alien species. This seems a terrifying proposition, especially given that there is no indication that all Earth nations are members of the Systems Alliance.

One real-world analogue to this massive interstellar government is the United Nations. But the United Nations is an intergovernmental organization, not a sovereign governmental entity. It does not have its own military, instead relying on volunteers from member nations. And while its General Assembly, consisting of representatives from member states, passes resolutions, these are non-binding. This loose authoritative presence means, for example, that the United States can simply remove itself from compulsory jurisdiction of the UN’s International Court of Justice–and has in fact done so. In other words, there is none of the sweeping authority of the Systems Alliance. The Citadel Council may in fact more closely match the UN, as it drafts policies agreed to by the member species which must be adhered to for continued membership in the Citadel Council (note that the enforcement ability of the Citadel Council is still considerably greater than that of the UN).

The European Union is another example that was pointed out to me when I prepared this essay in its original format. The EU is a supranational form of governance that developed out of a limited-aspect intergovernmental organization meant to regulate trade. It therefore has a sort of mission creep similar to the expansion of the Systems Alliance from an organization focused on colonization to a galaxy-spanning political body setting rules for the people back home on Earth. The EU also has limited security oversight, with cooperative military forces established between member states, and it also has established spheres of governance, including the European Council with its member state representatives. But I don’t think that the EU is a close match to the Systems Alliance, either. While it is at least an economic and political system that shares common laws to facilitate trade and unity, it does not have quite the same power of the Systems Alliance. A European nation can choose to leave the EU–just look at Brexit–and while this would be economically disruptive, it would be possible. The membership or non-membership of a nation in the Mass Effect galaxy is almost a moot point, as the Systems Alliance will make decisions that affect and basically control all nations of Earth. It is a governmental system that clearly draws from several international organizations existent upon Earth, but surpasses them all. The level of oversight is wildly broad, but then again, the sheer volume of space involved and the sheer number of represented constituents perhaps necessitates such massive control.

It is actually rather hard to imagine a situation where a nation like the United States would vest such power within a supranational organization like the Systems Alliance. How would this even be accomplished? Presumably the United States government, or some successor government, bound itself to the Systems Alliance and member nations by a treaty or series of treaties, which must have been rather extensive in content and scope.

In today’s world, you don’t need to look further than the fervent politicking around the Iran deal (now a dated example, admittedly) to see how unlikely such a binding series of agreements with foreign powers, in which some degree of military control was ceded, would be.

But that is one of the benefits of science fiction: imagining worlds of tomorrow, worlds that are often implausible by the standards of today.