Disability Representation in BioWare’s Mass Effect Trilogy, Part 1: Cause for Hope

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by Sherry Toh |

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First in a two-part series.

I have never seen sci-fi media portray disabilities as casually as in the original trilogy of Mass Effect, a sci-fi video game series by game developer BioWare.

For older fans of BioWare, the release of its remastered compilation on May 14 was a commemoration of the landmark trilogy, with updated visuals and refined controls. For newer fans like myself, it’s a chance to discover why its story is so special in sci-fi and gaming.

On the surface, the trilogy is reminiscent of other sci-fi stories about galactic invasions. Ridley Scott’s “Alien” comes to mind, which is similarly prescient and progressive, yet dated and problematic. Mass Effect explores themes like agency, genetic modification, and morality as we follow the protagonist — in this case, Cmdr. Shepard — in gathering allies to save the galaxy from an alien threat against all known life.

The trilogy distinguishes itself by recognizing the universe’s vastness, diversity, and complexity. In doing so, it includes myriad disabled characters, both human and alien, whose experiences vary as much as the quality of their storylines. The addition of disabilities enriches and complicates its themes and politics; it’s where it can soar into the stars or crash and burn like an aimless asteroid.

The topic is worthy of several essays. But for my column, I’ll be focusing on the aspects I enjoyed and what we can learn from the trilogy’s missteps.

Jeff “Joker” Moreau, the human pilot of Shepard’s spaceship, has perhaps the best representation in the series. Joker has brittle bone disease, rendering the bones in his legs prone to injury. His disease informs his life but doesn’t entirely define him (as is the case with all disabled characters in Mass Effect.) Though he’s a secondary character, he is fully realized and gets his own arc. Players can even save the ship with Joker in the second game.

Joker’s introduction was delightfully familiar to me. The first time Shepard asks Joker to talk about himself, Joker launches into a defensive speech. He’s the best pilot for Shepard’s ship and earned his accomplishments, he declares.

“Those weren’t given to me as charity for my disease!” he says.

It was like watching every time I clarified to my family that my columnist position at SMA News Today wasn’t offered as charity. “I had to submit a résumé and everything!” I’d sigh. I also remembered the confidence my friend Brianna Albers had in me securing the position, and my heart’s leap when BioNews’ Director of Columns Brad Dell said he liked my writing sample.

I’m not the best in my field. I can’t perform remarkable feats like Joker does with his impossible rescues. But I share his frustrations — the need to prove myself and feel like I belong.

Then there’s Thane Krios, an assassin of a reptilian-like race. Driven from their homeworld and brought to a planet incompatible with their physiology, Thane and many of his people have developed a fictive lung disease. According to BioWare writer Patrick Weekes, that disease was based on cystic fibrosis, which their friend lives with.

Cystic fibrosis serves as more than inspiration for its fictional counterpart’s symptoms. Its influence extends into Thane’s outlook on life. In their first conversation on Shepard’s ship, Thane tells Shepard he’s dying and would like to make the world brighter before he leaves it. While scientists are working on a treatment, he doesn’t believe he’ll live to be treated. That conversation contrasts one they later have in a hospital, when Thane informs Shepard his doctor gave him three months to live — nine months earlier.

That awareness of death, hope for the future, and disbelief at living to see a future is an outlook many rare disease patients share, as is Thane’s concern for those he’ll leave behind.

Thane’s situation is a good illustration of how disability is a mismatch between the disabled and our environments. But a better one may be that of technician Tali’Zorah and her people, whose immune systems were uniquely attuned to their homeworld. The loss of it meant they all became immunocompromised. To survive in other atmospheres, they must wear protective suits — a fate we may all empathize with after the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are instances when Mass Effect perhaps portrays disabilities too casually. After Shepard and officer-turned-vigilante Garrus Vakarian experience near-death incidents, they’re mended with implants. It would’ve been nice if their trauma and disabilities were acknowledged beyond scarring and a handful of sentences. I would’ve also liked to see more of how Lt. Kaidan Alenko manages his chronic migraines.

Nonetheless, flaws and all, Mass Effect’s trilogy has earned its acclaim — and another fan. Its portrayals of disabled characters as complex people and heroes is a bright star in a dark sky. I can only hope more stories will come to shine alongside it.

In the next column, I’ll look at how Mass Effect’s trilogy reflects disability history, among other topics. 

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Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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