SPOILER WARNING: This article will talk about the death of a major character in Mass Effect 3 that takes place about a third of the way through the game… unless, of course, that character died in your playthrough of Mass Effect 2.
Prayer is a very strange thing. It takes numerous forms, from the recitation of memorized words, often ancient, to the spontaneous utterances of exuberant or anguished hearts. It can be practiced in deep silence, and it can be as informal as a muttered word for help before a surgery or a battle. Prayer flows out of human beings; we seem to be hardwired for it, either by some quirk of natural selection or through deep enculturation. The old saying “there are no atheists in foxholes” suggests the fact that, at our core, humanity is a praying species.
It’s important to note that none of this is an apologetic for the existence of God. One needs a particular understanding of the bare facts to interpret them in any particular way. Our penchant for prayer may be a quirk of genetic mutation; it may be a result of millennia of conditioning. Neither suggests that there is anyone listening to our prayer. So, while I do believe that our prayers are heard, I do not think the fact that we pray is somehow proof of that.
In the Mass Effect series, BioWare has made a very interesting choice when it comes to its alien species. For the most part, though not universally, the sentient species of the universe are praying people as well. The Turians speak of the spirits, the Asari of the Goddess, and the Drell pray to the Hunter and the Mother.
The Drell also pray to a goddess named Kalahira, who watches over the oceans and the afterlife (an interesting connection for the anthropologically minded, as the Drell are a water species). As Thane Krios is dying, he tells Shepard that there is something he must do first, before things get worse. He begins to pray.
He asks for forgiveness, for protection, and for guidance to a far shore where “the traveler never tires, the lover never leaves, the hungry never starve.” This is a prayer for safe passage into the “good land” or the Elysium understanding of the afterlife. It is very touchingly revealed that the prayer is not for Thane, who has asked forgiveness for his sins already, but for Shepard. It is something like the woman who anoints Jesus with very expensive oils before his death. It is a preparation made out of love.
What is fascinating in this is that in an industry that is rampantly agnostic or atheist, there is no irony in this scene. There is none of the over-the-top understanding of religion as either fundamentalist or shallow. Religion here is not presented as Thane Krios’ one weakness. It is part of who he and his son, who admits to having spent time with the priests of his people, are.
In contrast to BioWare’s Dragon Age series, where the religious aspects of the game seem a bit more exaggerated and less finely tuned, the Mass Effect series has built a wonderful integration of the different faiths of the galaxy. And by doing this, they have presented something that is rare in gaming: A picture of religions existing in peace.
We do not hear of the Turians fighting the Asari because they believe their understanding of the universe is superior. The Drell are not known to wage religious war to overcome the Hanar’s beliefs about the Enkindlers. The picture of religion is one of different, and even incompatible, belief systems living in peace.
What is bold about this is that it does not take the Gene Roddenberry route. It does not eliminate religion from the galaxy, or merely relegate it to primitive species. Instead, the picture of religion in the Mass Effect series portrays highly scientifically and socially advanced species who also believe in the supernatural and the divine.
This poses interesting questions. For the “Star Trek” universe, religion was a thing that the human race needed to get over. It was a cancer that destroyed humanity, and when cut out, the human race could grow without limit. For Mass Effect, it seems that the particularly hostile elements in religion are the evils that we must jettison. Religion is seen as natural in the fullest meaning of the word, as it has arisen in all manner of intelligent species across the galaxy. It is, in the Mass Effect Universe, “natural” for sentient beings to believe in the super-natural, just like it is natural for them to have some form of verbal communication. It is not essential; they might not have had it, and yet they do.
Thus the Mass Effect universe stands as a rather lonely entry in the video game pantheon, especially among sci-fi games. It seems to say that belief, prayer, science, technology, and peace can all exist with each other. That our next evolutionary step is not to stop believing, as Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” would have had it, but to rejoice in each other’s beliefs without fear, and therefore without violence.