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A Look at the ‘Brexit’ Debate Through the Filter of Mass Effect

Because what better way is there to measure the pros and cons of the looming EU Referendum than with the help of a sci-fi video game series?

Commander Shepard as she can appear in 'Mass Effect 3'.

The "Brexit" vote, otherwise known as the EU Referendum, is looming. On June the 23rd, millennials across the UK will have their first significant chance to have a say on this particular generational wobble: do we stay, or do we go? The European Union is the geopolitical equivalent of a green smoothie: it tastes a bit bitter from time to time, sure, but it's probably good for us. Isn't it? Do we stick with it, or do we peace out and try to reclaim some halcyon British glory?


Most major life decisions can be run through the filter of video games, if only to bring reality into sharper focus through contrast against escapist fantasy. And when it comes to Brexit, only one game series is truly suitable for answering so many opaque questions: Mass Effect.

If you've missed out on the space-faring, multiple-choice-making, try-everything-sexual Mass Effect trilogy until now, it goes something like this. It's 2183 at the beginning of the first game, and the galaxy feels a little less empty but several degrees deadlier. And like finding a tangerine months after you dropped it under the floorboards, there are new life forms wherever you look.

A few space fracases later, and humanity is part of a sprawling intergalactic civilization. For the purpose of this analogy, the Citadel Council – which happen to convene in a gleaming chromatic space station that would make Norman Foster dab a tear – is effectively the European Union, or at least the European Parliament.

The decisions you make throughout the series have a significant impact on the denizens of the universe, including the space governed by the Citadel Council. These choices are reflected in the morality system of the game. Positive choices centred on collaboration, talking rather than combat, net you Paragon points; while reactionary alternatives, like punching the person opposite you in their big dumb face, get you a load of Renegade points.


Let's look at how this basic morality compass impacts travel, immigration and politics in Mass Effect – and what we can learn about the decision to stay in Europe, or not, knowing everything that Commander Shepard and crew have taught us.

Shepard's ship, the Normandy, exits a Mass Relay.


To travel the vast reaches of the vacuum, the citizens of Citadel Space use Mass Relays. They're like a combination of Concord, Megabus and the Schengen Area – crazy fast, open to all and with zero visa requirements.

And here we come to our first real-world concern. What happens to all those cheeky continental city breaks and festivals if we leave the EU? In Mass Effect 2, you and your crew have to find a way of safely passing through the Omega 4 Relay in order to attack the galactic assholes trying to wipe everyone else out. And to pass through the Relay (which is standing in for passport control, here) you need a visa, of sorts.

In a post-Brexit world we probably won't need visas to visit other EU states, but imagine if we did? Retrieving the Reaper IFF ("Identify Friend/Foe" device, aka the game's ultimate visa) needed to travel through the Omega 4 Relay, on Insane difficulty, is a total ballache. You enter a giant robot alien cuttlefish only to be mobbed by waves of hostile husks, and once you have successfully battled through to the IFF, you have to leap for your life as the entire structure collapses around you. TBF, I had the exact same experience trying to get a Russian visa IRL: frustration, panic, losing shields.


However hypothetical it may be, the potential of more visas is definitely enough to make an exit the Renegade choice.

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So before the Vote Leave campaign became the official force for spamming Brits with deliriously debatable celebrations of our nationalism, UKIP was the de facto party of choice when it came to those tattooing lines from "Land of Hope and Glory" on their thighs. And UKIP, when we hold it up to Mass Effect, bears a striking resemblance to the fictional group of Terra Firma, a political party that opposes humanity's growing integration into the galactic community. Terra Firma members believe humanity – our in-game equivalent of the UK, in case that wasn't clear – needs to stand alone if it is to remain strong. Part of their platform involves opposing the teaching of alien languages in human schools.

Terra Firma was created in response to the concern that humanity's individuality might be diluted or lost after too much integration into alien cultures. The party's manifesto isn't particularly extremist, but it tends to be a magnet for xenophobes and radicals, and it does nothing to curtail the racist comments of its members, under the pretext that the party will not abridge its members' freedom of speech.

You gain Renegade points for supporting Terra Firma and Paragon points for refusing to endorse them. Which is basically saying: you're a terrible person, truly awful, if you side with UKIP and the "Brexit" posse.


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Tali'Zorah nar Rayya is a quarian, a nomadic race that travels the stars. She's a powerful ally for Shepard, if treated with respect.


While saving the day (okay, universe, again) in Mass Effect 2, Shepard and company manage to royally screw up the Mass Relays. But how screwed depends on how effectively you rally the galaxy's many and varied forces for the final fight. If you pick sides rather than fostering bilateral collaboration, the Relays suffer more extensive damage. They explode upon transmitting the coup de grâce, via the Crucible (a large old thing that blows shit up), and the subsequent rebuilding proves more difficult for the survivors. Which effectively strands most of the galaxy's population on our doorstep.

That's all of humanity and then some, from across the galaxy, coming home to roost. Can you imagine the subsequent drain on resources?

"The rights of some two million UK citizens living abroad would need to be determined, as would the rights of a similar number of EU citizens living in the UK. This is complex stuff – you are talking about rights to residence, to healthcare and to schooling, about maintenance payments and access to children, about research projects and contracts that cross borders …Sorting all this out would be a daunting task."

So said MP Lord Boswell in early May 2016, discussing the problems Brits overseas would face if we left the EU. On May the 24th, David Cameron commented that any Brits returning to our shores might not be able to own property or receive free healthcare, and the only way to absolutely guarantee these rights is to stay in the EU.


To recap: the Mass Relays take longer to rebuild if you choose the Renegade route. They're just a bit singed if you go the Paragon way. Play nice yourself, and everyone in the galaxy's happier as a result. Make of that what you will.

Members of the Citadel Council.


Throughout the Mass Effect series, uniting races and individuals is a proven strategy for success. In fact, the overwhelming message of Mass Effect is that you're basically screwed if you go it alone. Diversity and collaboration leads to new possibilities and apocalypse-avoiding strategies. And that applies as much to dealing with real-world issues like climate change or terrorism, or just ensuring that fewer of us get screwed over by simply being alive.

Unlike the three very definitive (pre-extended cut) endings of Mass Effect 3, what the precise effect of choosing the "Brexit" will be remains impossible to say. There's still a lack of agreement on what a concrete alternative to EU membership would be. But if we've learnt anything from the Mass Effect morality system, voting to remain is the Paragon choice and choosing to leave is the Renegade option. One is good, and the other, significantly less so. More people die when you're playing the game aggressively, caring about yourself over the rest of your crew and their concerns. But it is just a game, right?


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