Prior to the coronavirus, the amount of immigrants, refugees and displaced people around the world was one of the most discussed issues of our time. While games have tackled the issue head on – Papers, Please being an obvious one – none have quite captured the feelings of helplessness in the face of disaster the way Mass Effect 3 does.

The finale to the Mass Effect trilogy gained heavy criticism at the time, especially for its ending, but most of the game is filled with resolution, sharp characterization, personal moments and a strong theme of reactive chaos. It strips you of whatever being ‘Commander Shepard’ means, and makes you simply ‘Shepard’; a person. A person who can’t save everyone, no matter how hard they try.

Kai Leng was an ineffective villain, Thane, Jacob and Tali-mancers were left out in the cold and Diana Allers had no business being there. Mass Effect 3 is far from perfect, but its weaknesses have been disproportionately highlighted.

The problem is that Mass Effect’s failures were eye catching and gaudy, even if they lacked substance. The game felt like a three course meal served on plastic Spider-Man plates; the good parts mattered so much more, but they were overshadowed.

Part of that substance was the Citadel, where you spend a good chunk of your downtime throughout the game. In the previous two instalments, the Citadel had been the apex of life in the galaxy.

It was a highly polished, soulless but mighty pinnacle of corporate achievement and effective legislation. In the third game, it’s cast in shadows, drenched in red and black and serves to typify the weakness and lack of preparation in the fight against the reapers. Where previously ambassadors had strolled their boardwalks in their suits, refugees now cowered in fear. You can hear their hushed whispers, their desperate cries every time you venture down to the Holding Area.

Shepard is a hero. Surely it’s just a matter of shooting a bad guy, finding a maguffin or selecting the correct dialogue option, right? Well, no. There is no way to save these people. Like many refugees, there is nothing we can do to help them. How do we restore order to a war ravaged world? How do we reunite families ripped apart by conflict? How do we bring children back to life?

Certainly, there are better games – and with a wider lens, far better pieces of media in general – which highlight the plight of the refugee. But these parts of Mass Effect 3 are not about the refugees, they’re about the bystanders. The people who would do anything to help, if only they could. The people who ignored the problem, out of sight and out of mind, until it was screeching in their face and forced them to confront the problems they had allowed to fester for other people.

It’s not Shepard’s fault the Reapers are invading, but could they have used their influence within the Citadel to lobby for change instead of throwing pithy burns the Council’s way? Could they have solved problems with words more often than bullets? Shepard is a heroic soldier, but like all heroic soldiers, their victories are zero sum. Some one else has lost. Their greater good victories plunged cities, planets and systems into chaos, and now the Citadel is stuffed with the Human (and Asari and Turian and…) face of collateral damage.

Mass Effect 3 highlights the pain of refugees through the eyes most personal to the player; the eyes of the bystander.

Putting us in the shoes of the refugees themselves forges a connection between us and their suffering, but also makes it too easy for us to wash our hands of the responsibility. It passes the blame onto dictators, famine, military invasion. As Shepard, we see this suffering face to face, and despite being the hero, we can’t save them. Because it’s not enough to simply want to save the day; we have to build a better world so the day won’t need saving.

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