The savior of the galaxy might once have been a drug runner.
Mass Effect, BioWare’s hit space opera RPG, presents its players with a choice of backstories for the main character, each contributing to the game’s story in a unique way. One, the Earthborn background, means that Commander Shepard was a member of a gang called the Tenth Street Reds until coming of age to join the military.
The game isn’t based around gangsters, but this experience might make this Shepard’s perspective very different from one who came from a colony planet or a military family. In terms of gameplay, the gangs are a variation on the game’s other waves of enemies, with their own classes and strategies.
Although never a main part of the game, the galactic gang wars are a major subplot in Mass Effect 2, as clone Commander Shepard helps Cerberus, the human terrorist group that rescued him from an early death, consolidate their power. There’s also that great quest to defeat the mysterious Shadow Broker, one of the galaxy’s most dangerous gangsters, as well as its greatest trafficker of information. It seems likely that gangs will once again stay out of the limelight in Mass Effect 4, and instead pepper the galaxy with little stories that make the game’s universe all the more real.
Gangs are also one of the many elements Mass Effect shares with earlier science fiction stories. Star Wars has gangs and gangsters like Jabba the Hutt. Dystopian science fiction in various mediums, such as The Last Book in the Universe, Mad Max, and A Clockwork Orange use gangs, which emphasize the lawlessness of their settings.
BioWare plays the gangs in Mass Effect straight, neither aggrandizing them to the size of a society or blunting their teeth with a neat moral label as Star Wars does to characters in general. Mass Effect shows desperate kids looking for a life in a gang, the bullied citizens who have no choice but to join the organized criminal ranks, and the imperious crime lords who keep order in their territories.
Like Jabba, Aria, crime lord of Omega Station in the far reaches of space, has ultimate faith in her power and makes her home base in a sensual underworld. Unlike our favorite pervy Hutt, she isn’t defeated. She even becomes an ally to Shepard. So does Zaeed, a gang leader turned bounty hunter. Likewise, Shepard’s moral choices don’t guarantee a failure of the game’s mission – could Mass Effect 3’s unsatisfying ending serve as a moral statement about the inevitability of death and futility of heroism?
The gangs contribute to Mass Effect’s aesthetic in both their brutality and their moral changeability.
Three main gangs each have their own backstories:
One of the most vicious and least organized is the Blood Pack, founded by a krogan exiled from his clan for beating a female krogan. This gang is largely made up of vorcha troops. If Mass Effect were a high fantasy story, the vorcha would be orcs – vicious, unsympathetic, and usually found in numbers.
The Blue Suns, founded by Zaeed Massani and Vido Santiago, work as a mercenary group and surround themselves with the trappings of civilized business. Along with many other interactions with Shepard, they were hired by the Shadow Broker to recover Shepard’s body after the early events of Mass Effect 2. The Blue Suns were also welcomed by some citizens on Omega, who found a protection racket to be better than no organization at all.
Eclipse is the most professional of the three gangs, serving in truth as a mercenary corporation. That doesn’t mean that they have scruples – at least one group requires its members to commit a murder before joining. Eclipse was founded by Jona Sederis, a maddened asari whom Shepard only meets from the other side of a jail cell.
Omega’s gang lord Aria is often the connecting tissue between all three groups and Shepard. She has created a dangerous but functioning infrastructure in which both gangsters and common folk live on the same seedy space station. Like some of their real-world equivalents, the gangsters live in a mix of hedonistic luxury and war zone poverty.
The human military brought the young Earthborn Shepard out of that world, and Shepard can advise a young wannabe mercenary to never get into it. The organized military, represented by Shepard and the Alliance, is shown as a better alternative than the gang life.
That same Earthborn Shepard receives a visit from a Tenth Street Red in Mass Effect. No matter the choices made on this side mission, Shepard’s relationship with the gang is an uneasy one, as it has turned into an extremist anti-alien group.
The gang background could change Shepard’s perspective in other ways, too, ones that don’t have a storyline devoted to them but might contribute to the player’s perspective of their own character. Shepard could be more appreciative or more critical of the military, might dismiss the council or form a bond with Captain Anderson that is strong because of that upbringing. He/She might have a different way of interacting with Zaeed, or Jack, who made her own life in a cult for many years and considers turning the Normandy into a pirate ship.
Other Shepard backstories provide equally strong motivations. But a gang-born Shepard is forced to confront a past which he/she left behind. That past also follows a lengthy tradition of science fiction using gang members as either main characters or set dressing, or everything in between, exploring ideas of the criminal class, the economy of the future, and the moral components of the hero.