Blasto Sacer

Mass Effect as an Allegorithm of Sovereign Exception

Luke Arnott is a PhD candidate in the Media Studies program at the University of Western Ontario. Luke’s research interests are focused on genre theory and the epic, specifically its manifestation in new narrative contexts in media such as video games and comic books.

Expanding state power has clashed repeatedly with the rights of citizens and non-citizens alike since 9/11; the political theories of Giorgio Agamben, specifically his discussion of the figure of the homo sacer and of sovereign exception, have stimulated much discussion on this topic. Underlying debates over the legality of government-sanctioned torture, assassination, and “extraordinary rendition” is a basic contradiction: Is it possible to write laws that allow us to break the law? Or, to put it more generally, is it possible to design a system with a rule that allows an agent within that system to break the rules? These questions can be especially interesting for videogame studies, not only because we can ask them about the representational aspects of contemporary video games that model extra-legal, state-sanctioned violence, but because we can also consider the deeper procedural implications of these issues.  A look at the “Spectres” from the Mass Effect series offers a way to do both at once, and, when interpreted via Agamben’s work, the Spectres reveal some of the contradictions inherent in both the representational and allegorithmic aspects of games.

Homo Sacer

To explain how a citizen might be legally subject to extra-legal punishment, Agamben goes back to an obscure figure from Roman law, the homo sacer. This “sacred man” was deemed beyond the protection of human law, already belonging to the gods (hence “sacred”). Reduced to “bare life,” the homo sacer could be killed with impunity by anyone, but, conversely, he could not be offered up in sacrifice. (47) For Agamben, the ancient status of homo sacer suggests a way that legal subjectivity can be stripped from a contemporary citizen, and this occurs in a “state of exception” where the rights of citizenship (or even human rights) do not apply. This state of exception is declared by the sovereign – whether a king, president, or other authority – and it is crucial to note that the sovereign, in making this exception, functions as a structural reflection of the homo sacer. (53) Both the homo sacer and the sovereign are, paradoxically, placed outside the law through legal means, in order to accomplish goals that supposedly cannot be met otherwise. The difference is that the sovereign removes himself in order to wield or bestow extra-legal powers, while the homo sacer is cast out so that he may become subject to those same extra-legal powers.

This philosophical framework certainly anticipates the description of the Spectres in the Mass Effect trilogy, who wield sovereign power over other citizens. The Spectres are answerable only to the Citadel Council, the ultimate authority over many of the species in the Mass Effect universe, including humans. Spectres (short for Special Tactics and Reconnaissance) are, according to their Mass Effect codex entry, “elite military operatives, granted the authority to deal with threats to peace and stability in whatever way they deem necessary … often outside the bounds of galactic law.” Like other secret government agents, the Spectres are liminal figures, operating at once inside and outside the rule of law; moreover, like Agamben’s sovereign, they are allowed to determine a state of exception. This can mean acting with independent authority in relatively benign ways, but the logical end of that authority is the power of life and death over citizens: the Spectres assign homo sacer status to others. In practical terms, this means summary executions.

We’ve long been familiar with the concept of sovereign exception in fiction, even if we haven’t called it by that name. Secret agents and superhero vigilantes often work outside the law in comics, films, and novels. James Bond’s “license to kill” is perhaps the archetype of sovereign exception in this regard. At the level of representation, Mass Effect’s Spectres fit into this tradition easily. Indeed, the idea of the Spectre as secret agent is even parodied within the Mass Effect games themselves. While visiting the markets of Ilium in Mass Effect 2, players overhear advertisements for Blasto: The Jellyfish Stings, an exploitation film about the adventures of “the first Hanar Spectre.” Blasto recites Dirty Harry-inspired catchphrases made amusing by the monotonous and third-person phrasing that is typical of the Hanar species (“This one doesn’t have time for your solid waste excretions,” etc.). Mass Effect 3, similarly, features a billboard on the Citadel for Blasto 6: Partners in Crime, and player interaction with it triggers a lengthy audio Easter egg of Lethal Weapon-style banter from the film.


At the level of game rules, and of algorithm and system, the Spectres also model sovereign exception, and it is here that the Mass Effect series is of particular interest. Most games that feature representations of agents or vigilantes acting within Agamben’s state of exception do not implicate the player in determining who lives or who dies. The player who controls Bond in the N64 classic GoldenEye 007 and its remake is given little choice in the use of lethal force. When controlling Shepard in Mass Effect, however, there are numerous instances in which the player can either kill or spare certain characters. In this way, the series models an allegorithm, and what McKenzie Wark calls “a relationship between appearances and algorithm in the game” (31). For critics like him and Alexander Galloway, this allegorithm is the key to interpreting the greater meaning of a particular game (Galloway 91). In the case of Mass Effect’s Spectres, the parallel between the representational sphere of action of the player’s avatar, the Spectre Shepard, and the algorithmic choices open to the player when controlling that avatar, seems at first to reinforce these two elements of the game and to give it a greater thematic cohesion.

However, a player cannot allow Shepard to spare enemies in the middle of a firefight, and of course, major plot points are equally outside a player’s ultimate control. Although Shepard’s actions can affect certain details when major enemies such as the rogue Spectre Saren Arterius or the Illusive Man meet their ultimate end, deciding whether these villains live or die is not up to the player. This does not necessarily mean that the parallel between the representational and the algorithmic elements of Mass Effect is imperfect; rather, it reveals the tensions and contradictions inherent in the allegorithm. This in turn mirrors the paradox of the homo sacer and sovereign exception in “real life” – namely, the paradox of sanctioned rule-breaking.

Mass Effect 3’s controversial ending demonstrates these contradictions most starkly. Shepard is given a series of choices by the Catalyst, the entity controlling the rampaging Reapers: she[foot]Shepard can be male or female; I played a female Shepard[/foot] can destroy all intelligent machines, take control of the Reapers, or forge a synthesis between organic and artificial life. Every choice results in the apparent death of Shepard, and implies her subordination to the Catalyst’s limited options. Many fans were deeply unsatisfied with this ending to the series; in addition to leaving a number of narrative loose ends, Shepard was given no choice but to play what seemed to some to be a rigged game, and this fate was at odds with the apparent autonomy granted to the character up to that point (and, according to some fans, not in keeping with the pre-release promises of the developers). Bioware and EA soon released an “Extended Cut” of Mass Effect 3’s ending, addressing some of these concerns. In particular, one dialogue option allowed Shepard to refuse to accept any of the Catalyst’s choices (although this effectively means the destruction of galactic civilization). This new option would allow Shepard (and therefore the player) to act outside the rules in a limited sense. However,  this new option only highlights how the player/Shepard, depending on one’s interpretation, is either reintegrated within the system or exposed as having being contained by a higher set of rules all along.

Scripted Blastos

At the representational level, this systematic recuperation occurs in the post-credits sequence, in which the “Stargazer” explains to a child in a distant future time the actions taken by “The Shepard.” When the Stargazer agrees to tell the child another story of “The Shepard,” the player’s choices are downplayed as just another of many possible playthroughs of the Mass Effect trilogy. At the level of the allegorithm, the tinkering in the Extended Cut ending reveals how the actions of the player are still ultimately guided by the game’s designers, and that any protestation in real life is subject to the mercy of EA and Bioware’s control of their intellectual property. Just as Shepard has less control over her destiny within the Mass Effect universe than some would have liked, so too do the game’s players, even as they identify with Shepard, have less control over the game itself. This allegorithm presents an uncomfortable truth: we are more like scripted Blastos than autonomous Shepards. From this perspective, the efforts of heavily invested fans such as Gerry Pugliese, who received wide attention for his immense fan-fiction rewrite of Mass Effect 3 (Schreier), to convince designers to radically alter the game may well be in vain, not only because such fans lack the authority or cultural capital to implement their ideas, but because of the exponentially increasing practical and technological limitations to creating multiple endings.[foot]Mass Effect 3’s Extended Cut requires nearly two gigabytes of extra hard disk space to add only a few minutes of video to each of the game’s three endings; Pugliese describes over ten new endings to the game in his manifesto.[/foot] (Lebowitz and Klug 171, 179)

So, Mass Effect’s Spectres offer increasingly compelling insights into the paradoxes of the homo sacer and sovereign exception. At the most superficial level of representation, Spectres are simply rule-bending secret agents, inspiring the in-universe Blasto film franchise, and within gameplay, Shepard operates as an archetype of this role. Yet, just as there are real contradictions to the exercise of sovereign exception, the use of such power within the rules of a video game, even one whose trademark is branching-path storytelling, remains a technical impossibility. Mass Effect seems to solve this problem by making the agency of Shepard rather illusory. As players, we are meant to feel that we share Shepard’s sovereign power, but the intrinsic contradictions of that power, mirrored by our subordination as consumers to the game design, give the Spectres a deeper, if more problematic, meaning.


Discussant’s Reply

Gerald Voorhees is an assistant professor in the Drama and Speech Communications department at the University of Waterloo. His research focuses on games and new media as sites for the construction and contestation of identity and culture. Gerald is co-editor of Continuum’s Approaches to Game Studies book series, and a member of the Executive Board of the Digital Games Research Association. He is also the acting faculty advisor for First Person Scholar.

I’ve been asked to reply to this piece; not to critique it but to serve as a “discussant.” In that spirit, I’d like to pose a question to the author in order to provoke discussion. Reading this essay, it was clear that Arnott’s work articulating the Spectres in general and Shepard in particular to Agamben’s figure of homo sacer is apt. It is further made clear by the essay that this functions on both a narrative/representational level as well as a performative/protocological level, except to the extent that it doesn’t.

And here’s where my fascination with this piece, and of the rhetorical positioning of the games as allegories of contemporary culture, is not satiated and why I must ask:

What is the significance (i.e. the lesson to be taken away) of the fact that “Just as Shepard has less control over her destiny within the Mass Effect universe than some would have liked, so too do the game’s players… have less control over the game itself.” On my reading this implies that Mass Effect is an object lesson in the illusion of sovereignty. Should or could I read this otherwise? Because I already experience, everyday and in so many ways, the limits of my own agency and absurdity of the sovereign as figure of subjectivity. And I doubt that people who used the pretext of 9/11 to put on the mantle of the sovereign and operate in a state of exception – people like Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and John Ashcroft – are playing or have played the Mass Effect series. So then, I need to know, what can we learn from this particular instance of ludo-narrative dissonance?

[Beginning in January 2014, every essay and commentary we publish on FPS will receive a response from a member on our board of discussants. Articles are paired up with a discussant based on subject-matter expertise and availability. The idea is to propagate a critical, constructive conversation that enriches both the author’s and the readers’ engagement with the text.]

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP.

BioWare. 2007. Mass Effect. Electronic Arts. [XBox 360]

———. 2010. Mass Effect 2. Electronic Arts. [XBox 360]

———. 2012. Mass Effect 3. Electronic Arts. [XBox 360]

Eurocom. 2010. Goldeneye 007. Activision. [Nintendo Wii]

Galloway, Alexander R. 2006. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP.

Lebowitz, Josiah and Chris Klug. 2011. Interactive Storytelling for Video Games: A Player-Centered Approach to Creating Memorable Characters and Stories. Focal Press.

Rare. 1997. Goldeneye 007. Nintendo. [Nintendo 64]

Schreier, Jason. “Fan Writes 400-Page Blueprint to ‘Fix’ Mass Effect 3.” Kotaku, last modified January 20, 2014; accessed 8/3, 2014,

Wark, McKenzie. 2007. Gamer Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.


One Comment

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Gerald. To answer your question, I think that Mass Effect can be seen as “an object lesson in the illusion of sovereignty” – but only for those who lack sovereign power. Those of us who are privileged enough to write academically about such things may be well aware of the limits to our own agency (both within games and without), but I don’t think we can assume that everyone else has given it as much thought. It’s clear that those Mass Effect players who didn’t like the series’ ending had different expectations regarding their own agency, and I was trying to figure out what might be behind that.

    Just because sovereignty can be little else than a power fantasy for the vast majority of us, that doesn’t make its exercise of power any less real. I want to make clear that the contradictions of sovereignty I touch on aren’t directed at sovereign power as such; rather, they are directed at the logical paradox underlying the legal rationale behind the sovereign’s invocation of a state of exception. This is why I don’t think reading Mass Effect as a possible “lesson” for Bush, Cheney, et al. is analogous at all: these men did in fact hold sovereign power, and with it, by definition, an exceptional agency. Agamben himself uses the post-9/11 declarations of the Bush administration (such as the rejection of Geneva Convention protections for “enemy combatants”) as archetypes in State of Exception.

    I’m not sure, therefore, that Shepard’s “illusory” agency is a clear-cut case of ludo-narrative dissonance. For me, the fact that Shepard has no (feel-good) choice at the end still “works” both narratively and procedurally. It seems to speak instead to the ambiguities and complexities of lived experience, which can be read in different, and in not always neatly consistent, ways – a feature of “art,” or at least something we might hope from it. I’m reminded of an old Star Trek episode in which Data thinks he’s malfunctioning because he can’t beat someone in a video game. To which Captain Picard responds: “It’s possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

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