Fairytales in Space: Mass Effect, the Disbelieved Heroine, and Breaking the Cycle

A long time ago (in this galaxy, not one far, far away), I wrote a bit about Star Wars and fairytales and mentioned I'd like to write more about space fairytales. That time has come!

Star Wars is a straight-forward fairytale: a fairytale story, fairytale characters. It is the fairytale as we have always known it, set a long time ago, somewhere far away. We know the story, we're familiar with the characters, but we're along for the journey, not the destination. The best thing about fairytales is that they have always been with us; we've told the stories around fires, by the hearth, in royal courts, in children's bedrooms. We take these stories and play with them, taking the familiar and transporting it somewhere new. Space fairytales are the fairytales of the future - and not just because that's where they're set. Space fairytales take the familiar and transport it somewhere we can only imagine, into a world we will likely never see in our own lifetimes. This setting provides unprecedented opportunities to examine and explore the nature of humanity, the nature of Earth, the nature of our galaxy - the way it has been, the way it is now, and the ways we hope or fear it will be in the future.

Mass Effect is not a fairytale. It is not meant to be, and is not a story that on its own would be considered a fairytale. But it uses some fairytale devices in compelling ways, taking familiar storytelling techniques and utilising them for engaging the player in ways traditionally-told fairytales can only dream of.

Hypatia Shepard

The player character, Shepard, is highly customisable in appearance, background, and choices during the game. Shepard can be played as a man, but the character played as a woman takes on a singular poignancy. A theme throughout the trilogy that in fact triggers the events of the third game is that Shepard's warnings are not heeded. This is frustrating for men, to be sure, but for women this is almost depressingly routine, both in stories and in real life.

Ajax drags Cassandra from the Temple of Athena

Perhaps the oldest folkloric example is Cassandra of Troy, given the gift of prophecy but cursed by Apollo to never be believed. Cassandra predicted the fall of Troy and warned her people of the Greeks hiding in the Trojan Horse, but, as you may have guessed, no action was taken because no one believed her. A similar case in the 13th century Icelandic Eyrbyggja Saga finds Thorod's foster mother warning him that he must kill a calf that will grow up to kill him; Thorod does not believe her, and is eventually killed by the adult bull.

The Zulu tale, "Nonikwe and the Great One, Marimba," tells the story of a little girl who has the ability to predict the future. However, she is usually believed, and all her predictions come true. She tells her uncle Mutengu, the headman of her village, that a visit from the queen of the Wakambi is imminent, and he prepares a feast. When the sun sets and the queen has not arrived, Mutengu chastises Nonikwe for lying to him. She assures him that the queen has already arrived, and Mutengu is furious with her for lying. She patiently takes him to the Great Hut and reveals the visitor in disguise who is, in fact, the queen. Nonikwe is eventually rewarded for her correct prophecies, but even though she has never been wrong before, Mutengu is very quick to flip the switch from respect to hatred for his niece.

Shepard is not exactly psychic, but has a connection to an ancient civilisation, the Protheans, that no one else has as the result of an accident. Through the course of the first game she receives garbled messages from the Protheans and eventually puts together their warning of the arrival of the Reapers. One Reaper, Sovereign, has already arrived, and Shepard manages to muster enough goodwill to lead an attack that brings Sovereign down. When congratulated on defeating the threat, she warns that more Reapers are coming, and they must use the time she has bought them to prepare. They don't, of course, and when the Reapers return at full force, the casualties are staggering. One squadmate remarks, while watching the Reapers destroy his home planet, "If they'd only listened to your warnings about the Reapers, we might've been ready."

[Cassandra wailing in the distance]

It's a story familiar to women outside the realm of folklore and science fiction as well. Women who speak the truth are used to being ignored at best, harassed and fought at worst. I hardly need to point further than the daily headlines, the same story cycling in and out with different characters: Bill Cosby, Johnny Depp, Harvey Weinstein, Dr. Luke. Many women keep silent about being harassed for fear of their treatment when they do speak up; having their name thrown around in public debate over whether or not they're lying, with the (demonstrably false) recurring statement that women lie about being assaulted all the time, so why should they be believed now? It's not a direct analogy to Shepard's predicament, but the theme of women telling the truth and being denounced for it is a long-standing one, and makes the experience of playing Shepard as a woman hit home in extremely deep ways.

A Reaper saying, "The cycle must continue. There is no alternative."

Another major theme - one that shows up a lot in science fiction - is the unbreakable cycle. "All of this has happened before, all of it will happen again," as Battlestar Galactica puts it. I mentioned this in the Star Wars post, and touched on it a little in the post about retellings. It's part of the fairytale beast, that we keep telling the same stories over and over in different dressing, with different people, in different times.

It is also a recurring theme in fairytales, folklore, and stories in general, that impossible tasks can be done. Against all odds, David defeats Goliath, Molly Whuppie defeats the giant, Moremi of the Yoruba people saves her village from the spirits of the forest. Fairytales present us with insurmountable obstacles, problems people had given up on solving, and our heroes and heroines win those unwinnable fights. In Mass Effect, the Reapers taunt Shepard with their knowledge in being unbeatable. The extinction cycles have gone on for longer than anyone can remember. The Reapers have never been defeated. But Shepard does the impossible and wins.

The Stargazer and the child: "Tell me another story about the Shepard."

After the credits roll at the end of Mass Effect 3, we are given a completely unexpected but very interesting fairytale framing. A man identified by the captions as the Stargazer and a child are walking together on an unspecified but somewhat unsettling and unfamiliar planet. The child asks if that story really happened, and the Stargazer says that it did, but it happened so long ago that the details might have been lost to time. Mass Effect takes place in the 22nd century, and it's interesting that the Stargazer sets that in the past; the story itself, as you're playing it, is not a fairytale, but this framing device that speaks very closely to a fairytale ending requires all of that to be in the past, as fairytales traditionally are. The child asks the Stargazer for "another story about the Shepard," and as the camera pans up toward the sky, the Stargazer says, "It's getting late, but okay...one more story." Shepard is thus placed as a legendary hero, whose dazzling feats and thrilling battles are now the stuff of bedtime fairytales. It's a little jarring tonally from the rest of the story - but it also makes sense. Cassandra gets her happy ending, breaking the unbreakable cycle...and they all live happily ever after.


  1. WOW.

    Well-written and insightful! And yes, the happy ending. But not for Cassandra. Shepard is also kinda Frodo Baggins, or whomever came before. The heroes who save the world for everyone but themselves. The Shire doesn't exist for Frodo, nor does Troy for Cassandra, nor the Milky Way for Shepard. Either through destruction of the place or destruction--of some sort--of the hero.

    Truth and will to power seem to end in death for heroes. But especially if they're women.

    Gonna share this on my Tumbles. EXCELLENT work.

    1. An excellent point :D I get so sidetracked in writing my own happy endings that I definitely didn't think about it in other terms, haha. Thank you! <3


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