Ten years ago, Jacob’s father disappeared along with the Hugo Gernsback, the privately-held frigate on which he served as first officer. Last week, the ship’s beacon sent out a distress call reporting a crash on the planet Aeia. Jacob would like to investigate.
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One of the most objectionable missions in Mass Effect 2 is Jacob Taylor’s loyalty mission, The Gift of Greatness. It’s disturbing on many levels, but what I’ll talk about in this post is how it reinforces issues that pop up now and again in the Mass Effect lore.

Jacob is sent a distress call in his message logs. Speaking to Shepard, it becomes clear that Jacob hasn’t spoken to his father in a long time, and that perhaps they didn’t part on the best of terms. Nevertheless, Jacob is asking Shepard to investigate and follow up on the distress call.

Finding the wreckage of the ship is easy, but the story that unfolds is not. It’s uncomfortable, exploitative and reprehensible. The Hugo Gernsback has crash landed on a planet where no food is edible without causing “neural decay”. The neural decay in turn causes forgetfulness and obedience, at least in the women. The men on the other hand are becoming violent and aggressive.

Apart from a total buy in into gender stereotyping, what makes me really uncomfortable is that as the story unfolds, it’s clear that all the people left in power are men, and that these men have abused their power horrendously. Nothing is clearly stated, but as Shepard discovers more and more journal entries and datapads, the pattern is clear. The men were using the women as their personal sex slaves. The neural decay made the women pliant and forgetful.

The most awful recording is encountered early in the mission. I think it upsets me the most because it seems true. It seems very plausible that a man could do this to a woman despite knowing that she didn’t want him to. The level of entitlement is staggering.

[…]… always said no. She even threatened a report if I didn’t stop sending messages. But now she’s so innocent. They all are. And that look she gives when she smiles… It’s sure easier now. What’s the harm? We’re stuck here any–

She can’t say no anymore and he loves it.

The first time I heard this recording it made my stomach turn. The more I play through ME2, the faster I rush through this mission.

It does however showcase both utter entitlement on the crew members’ part, and how very little women are worth, even in the Mass Effect universe.

In general, Mass Effect 2 is a game in conflict with itself. At the same time as it tries to be inclusive, diverse and accepting, it also perpetuates stereotypes. Jacob’s loyalty mission is only one example, but it is the most open and to my mind horrific one.

Confronting Jacob’s father and everything leading up to that moment is a masterclass in both overt and hidden misogyny. On the surface, as a player, I’m supposed to be horrified. “Look” it says. “Look at the men being entitled, isn’t it awful?” but underneath it all it reinforces gender essentialism. “This world” it says “brings out the true nature in men and women.” You will only find men as aggressors. You will only find women as peaceful bystanders, worshipping the men in power. You won’t find a single man to talk to affected by the neural decay. Only women.

I think this is why this mission has always made me so very uncomfortable. On the surface it says “Look at this! Some men are really awful and abuse power! Power corrupts!” but beneath it all it reinforces that when the chips are down and when all is said and done, the truth is that this is the way the world would be if we didn’t have culture to support us, if we didn’t have a social structure and a society that lifts women up, and honestly really, keep men down.

It points to the corrupting influence of power, for sure. It points to the utter entitlement to women’s bodies that men apparently feel despite knowing that if a woman hadn’t been rendered totally helpless, she would have protested, objected, rejected. But since she can’t it’s totally fine to abuse her.

What’s the harm, after all?

I would argue that the harm is subconscious, that all the messages and abuses that I’m supposed to react to in fact are reinforced by the way that the rest of the mission is structured, both from a narrative and a gameplay perspective. The people in power when the crash occurs are all men. The one worried voice is a woman. The enemies you face are all men. The docile, worshipping crowd are all women, and yes, they’re forced into worship.

Maybe I’m overthinking this. We – the away team – are there to investigate and stop the shenanigans after all. But this mission always leaves me with a sour aftertaste. “Here” it says. “Look at this awfulness. Set it to rights.” and at the same time it whispers “… strip away years, decades, decennia of civilisation and discover we were right. Women are by nature docile followers. Men are by nature made to be aggressors and in power.”

Unfortunately Mass Effect is riddled with this dual message. The Gift of Greatness is just one very obvious example.