Caution warning: descriptions of graphic imagery and violent ableism
Mass Effect 2: Overlord is a DLC pack for Mass Effect 2 initially published on June 15, 2010. It was met with a fantastic critical reception on release. Eurogamer described it as “wrapped up in a story that builds to a satisfying and pathos-heavy finale,” and said that it was clear that “thought, care, and balance” had gone into the DLC. Gamespot’s review stated that it was “one of [Shepard’s] best” missions, characterizing the ending as “bittersweet.” IGN summed up the add-on as “sure to please most everybody.”
The first time I played it, I nearly threw up. None of these reviews remotely resemble any sentiment I’d choose.
Because Overlord is a story about autism, one that clearly regards itself as sympathetic and sensitive to how autistic people are often treated, but the way that it unfolds turns it into a careless and obliviously prejudiced story. It's a story where an autistic character is turned into a prop in the story of a supposedly sympathetic abuser, and becomes mostly interested in the abuser’s feelings and experience.
It’s set to be released as part of the Legendary Edition, without revision, which is a definite choice. The original game had an infamously leering male gaze toward the bodies of its female characters, and the Legendary Edition has made changes to address that. The project director acknowledged that “a lot of things have evolved” to cause that change. Conversely, there has been no discussion of the content of Overlord, the implication being that when BioWare reconsidered Mass Effect 2, the shots of women’s backsides registered as too embarrassing to keep in the game, but the horrible messages of Overlord didn’t. The lack of consideration around Overlord, both then and now, shows just how lightly people take its harms.
In Overlord, Commander Shepard heads to the planet Aite, where the human-supremacist group Cerberus had set up a scientific research station. Cerberus was hoping to find a way to control the Geth, a race of artificially intelligent machines which are extremely hostile and have aligned themselves with the series’ ultimate villain: the Reapers, ancient and powerful machines bent on destroying all intelligent life in the galaxy. Shepard’s dedication to fighting the Reapers is part of what led her to join forces with Cerberus to begin with.
Shepard finds Cerberus’ research station completely overwhelmed by a rogue, murderous Virtual Intelligence. The head scientist of the facility, Dr. Gavin Archer, tells Shepard that the VI has been melded with the mind of his human brother, David. This hybrid VI has taken over the facilities, killed almost everyone, and is now attempting to spread itself off-world. Now, it’s Shepard’s job to stop this from happening.
Over the course of the next one or two hours, you play through a series of missions across Aite in order to unlock access to Atlas Station, the portion of the facility in which David has barricaded himself. You see dozens of bodies strewn across the floors as you fight the various infected Geth and security robots David used to kill the scientists. The whole time, you’re followed by a digital aspect of David. His voxelated face appears and screams an unintelligible sound reminiscent of a Gen 1 Pokémon call being run through a blender. At one point, you find a log of one of the dead scientists asking, what does the VI want? It keeps screaming at us—nobody understands!
When you get to Atlas Station, you finally see the truth of Project Overlord.
Dr. Gavin Archer’s research logs in Atlas Station mince no words. He discusses his brother’s autism—or, “autistic mind” as Gavin (and the writers of Overlord) seems to think is a completely normal way to refer to autism—as a boon to his work with the Geth. The inhuman way Gavin refers to his brother is almost anachronistically backward. As one of my friends said, it’s already so outdated that “I'd expect to hear this fictional doctor talk about hysteria next.” To frame David's autism as an aspect of his alien mind is dehumanizing, and attempts to treat autism like a disease which can be excised, rather than part of who we are.
As you continue through Atlas Station, Shepard becomes infected with the hybrid-VI and finally gains the ability to see things from David’s perspective.
You watch snippets of David’s memory; flashes of him and Gavin interacting. You see Gavin continually disregard David’s safety and autonomy in favor of his research. You see David treated as an inhuman machine, at one point described by his brother as “literally a human machine.” We see Gavin ignoring David’s issues with overstimulation, a fairly common issue among autistic people where we become overwhelmed by certain sensory experiences.
Eventually, we learn that David was not a volunteer. He was forced to take part in the Overlord experiment.
Here, in this blended reality, we are finally able to understand David’s screaming. The garbled digital screech that has followed you through the stations across Aite is David screaming “stop, make it stop.”
Shepard has to fight David, now aware of the reality of his situation. She sabotages his upload attempts and breaks through his barriers to find…
David Archer; run through with metal tubes and wires. He is naked, suspended in the air, arms outstretched and unable to move. His arms are impaled by tapered metal spikes. A metal restraint has dug into his skin, drawing blood across his chest. His eyes are being held open by a Clockwork-Orange-style contraption. The only thing he has control over is his eyes. You watch him, unable to blink, unable to move his head, suspended in place, as tears stream down his face.
And Shepard speaks to his brother.
Gavin Archer and Commander Shepard argue over David’s fate in a way that feels obscenely understated. The pinnacle of this may well be when, in a shot where the background is a bleeding, tortured, crying David, Shepard says that Dr. Archer has “sacrificed [his] brother’s happiness.” Eventually, this horrifically downplayed conversation leads to a decision: will Shepard leave David with his brother and a part of the experiment, or will Shepard take David (offscreen) to a school for “special cases” and leave Gavin to do his research without his brother as a test subject?
The first time that I played Mass Effect 2 I played with only the then-free DLC, and it was only well after finishing the trilogy that I finally decided to invest in the full DLC pack. I tried not to head straight for the new content, but to integrate it into this new playthrough. So, I was over a dozen hours into my save when I decided to play Overlord.
I ended up replaying the final fight over and over again, just so I could try to find a different ending for that conversation with Dr. Gavin Archer. I was trembling and crying and determined to find the set of dialogue choices which let me shoot the guy—or even arrest him. But that choice simply doesn’t exist. Overlord gave me no option to punish Gavin. There was no choice in which I could begin to find justice (or even retribution) for David. I couldn’t find a way to make Shepard see Gavin Archer’s actions as wholly unsympathetic.
But there is no sympathy in my heart for Dr. Gavin Archer.
In Overlord, David Archer gets no agency. The extent to which he is stripped of his autonomy by his guardian is unsettlingly realistic, as Game Assist explained in a video last June. Gavin Archer says of his brother, “he’s literally a human computer,” and “his autistic mind is as alien to me as an actual alien,” making it explicitly clear that he sees his brother as something less than a full human being. This dehumanization turns David into a prop and a plot device in his brother’s story—his consent is irrelevant. Gavin repeatedly disregards his brother’s wellbeing, stating that the experiment’s “danger should be negligible,” and he “see[s] no harm in finding out” if the experiment is safe for David. The game, however, doesn’t seem to understand the egregiousness of the situation, focusing instead on if Gavin’s choices were the right ones, not if he was the person who ought to be making them at all. As Gerry Hart, another autistic writer put it, “academically speaking, this is what we’d call a 'yikes' situation.”
Autistic people are often infantilized, dehumanized, and stripped of our agency. This is often justified by the fact that we are disabled and supposedly incapable of making our own choices. This prejudice is core to the mission of organizations like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, or ASAN, is an organization which works “to empower autistic people across the world to take control of our own lives…[and] to ensure our voices are heard in the national conversation about us.” ASAN is only one part of the disability and autistic rights movements, but its position statements are a particularly clear and useful way to articulate the harm borne from the same attitudes towards autistics that are tacitly accepted as normal in Overlord.
Most relevant is the simple stance: we have the right to make choices. It is absolute: as ASAN says, “there is no such thing as being 'too disabled' to be a self-advocate.” Some autistics require a lot of support in order to live their day to day lives, but then again, everyone requires support sometimes. If autistics are going to be treated with decency and as full, autonomous human beings, we have to be able to make our own choices. The ability for self-determination may look different for different people, but access to it is a civil right.
Overlord effectively denies this to David, and it's not just Gavin who does this. It's also Shepard, who tacitly accepts the premise that David's fate is something to be debated and discussed with his abuser-brother, as if he has some good points Shepard must consider.
Placing the abuser's feelings and perspective above their autistic victim's is not something that occurs in the vacuum of a sci-fi story.
Violence against autistics and other disabled people is often treated as less harmful or bad than violence against allistics (people without autism) and non-disabled people. This extends, unfortunately, to murder. Many disabled people who are harmed or murdered by family members are often seen as burdens, rather than victims. The Disability Day of Mourning exists to remember and honor the disabled people who are murdered by their families every year—the list for this year covers through February 14, and already has 10 names.
David, a character who was tortured explicitly because of his disability, is eerily reminiscent of this real world violence. If you leave him with his brother, Mass Effect 3 reveals that David was not removed from the experiment. He continues to be tortured, and eventually Gavin “put him out of his misery.” The same sentiment was used to justify the real-life murder of an autistic 14 year old by his mother in 2013.
The Mass Effect series constructs a future for humanity full of telekinesis and faster-than-light travel, yet it is incapable of imagining a future where autistic people are treated with human respect and dignity. What happens to David Archer is a viscerally accurate portrayal of the real life abuse that many autistic people experience, stripped of any context and lacking the simple option for a full-throated condemnation.
Unfortunately, we still live in a world where plenty of people would rather feed their children bleach or allow them to die of preventable diseases than have them "turn out autistic." Media portrayals of autistic characters often fall into the same tropes of the “idiot savant” and the “Hollywood autistic,” with minimal growth in the range of autistic representation. While “a lot of things have evolved” in the portrayal of various marginalized groups in games, BioWare is still rereleasing Overlord in 2021, with no sign of any attempt at recognizing, and combating, the harm it embodies.
I love the Mass Effect games. I’ll buy and play the Legendary Edition. The series means a lot to me and the horrors of Overlord haven’t completely overridden that, just as the lack of queer romance options, other poor handling of disabled characters, or issues framing women didn’t override my love for the series.
That said, BioWare, and all the folks who played and loved Overlord at its release, now have the chance at a do-over. And if, nearly eleven years after its initial release, we don’t take that opportunity to ask ourselves what it means to engage with (or make money from) Overlord, the Legendary Edition will be far uglier than the games it seeks to remaster.