Religion is something of a sensitive spot for the games industry. When it first got started, conservative groups swore it would poison their children’s minds with games like Doom with all its hellish imagery and Dungeons & Dragons with it “teaching magic”. The irony that D&D was originally designed by a Christian man was, sadly, lost on them, and to this day, being religious and a gamer is still taboo. Whether it’s among fellow gamers or certain religious groups, you’re taking blows and snide comments from both sides.
However, there are exceptions to this, and Bioware games are chief among them. While some have suggested Bioware’s games are all about “God trying to kill us” or about personal bonds over religious beliefs, they actually manage to nail the right notes several times. Today, we’re going to look at the most notable examples in the Mass Effect series. Spoilers ahead.
Many didn’t realize it, and for arguably understandable reasons, that Mass Effect has had a remarkably open mind about religious beliefs since the very start. Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams makes very clear in one conversation that she believes in the Abrahamic God, although in this first try by Bioware, it doesn’t help that she fits a lot of the stereotypes of a right-wing conservative. She’s initially made to come off as xenophobic, as well hard-edged to those that disagree with her. While she does grow as a character as you get to know her, it is a very unfortunate stereotype that turned off many gamers (myself included) from wanting to engage with her at length. Regardless, baby steps, and the improvement in the sequel is praiseworthy given this rough start.
Mass Effect 2 does not limit itself to one religious character. Three of your companions, Thane, Mordin, and Samara, all have religious beliefs. There’s even a few side characters that allude to various beliefs. The secret to how Mass Effect 2 (and later on, Mass Effect 3) does this so well is that while religion is a key part of each character, it is not all they are, yet not segregated either.
Mordin Solus is the first of the three you encounter, but your initial introduction to him is that of an alien doctor who will just as soon heal a patient as he will cut down a dangerous mercenary with a bullet. His agnosticism is an important part of his character arc of reconciling with his involvement in the infamous Genophage project that rendered the Krogan species nearly infertile. He lead the project, and while he once believed he had found the best solution, he now questions himself. He tries to find answers, and as a scientist, he analyzes all the possibilities. This leads him to become a curious agnostic, as comes up in your one conversation with him.
He explains that over the years, he’s studied a number of cultures and their beliefs, and has never been fully satisfied. The closest he’s come is his own culture’s religious philosophy of a “wheel of life” reincarnation, not unlike Śramaṇa beliefs typically found in Southeast Asia, particularly Hinduism. To summarize for those unfamiliar, this Salarian wheel of life belief system takes two key components from Hinduism, that of samara (reincarnation) and karma (action, intent, and consequences). We don’t get to learn a lot about the Salarian take on this faith, but what we do learn of it definitely fits with Mordin’s character.
Mordin works to counterbalance the pain and violence he’s caused, but only that which he views harmed the universe more than it helped it. His morality is chaotic, but still with the best intentions. He aims that to do the best he can in each of his lives, and accepts the consequences for his actions. He doesn’t fear death during Mass Effect 3, in part because of his belief that he will live on in his next life. Instead, he simply remains relentlessly curious and accepts life for what it is.
Even the Genophage itself is a karmic scenario of actions and consequences. The infertility virus only exists as consequence of the arrogant actions of the Krogan leading up to its development. Later, when the Krogan are needed to fight the Reapers, presuming you let Wrex survive on Virmire, then you see them grow more pragmatic and humble. Whatsmore, the main thing holding them back from entering the war is the Genophage. Now the consequences of how the rest of the galaxy tried to resolve the Krogan Rebellions are felt in full force. The Salarian government protests the idea of curing the genophage, but it’s not up to them. What goes around, comes around, and it’s up to Mordin and the player to either heal the harms or further the divide by only releasing a false cure.
In the event you opt for a false cure in order to sway the Salarians to your side, you also have to deal with an outraged Wrex who realizes you tricked him. You lose over a third of the Krogan forces as well as having to gun down Wrex in cold blood. The Krogan as a species face an uncertain future, and you’ve spread more discord rather than harmony into the world.
However, if you opt to heal the wounds dealt by the Genophage, something equally appropriate occurs. The Salarians later are overwhelmed by Reapers due to their military being small spec ops units rather than massive scale ground forces, leading to severe losses. You don’t get nearly as many Salarians as war assets, but you have the full support of the Krogan, and most importantly, karma once again comes into play. The Salarians refused to agree to a positive conclusion to this situation, and their negative response leads to isolation and loss. Not only does this all tie in to Mordin’s personal arc and his beliefs, but also compliments the series’ theme of unity in the face of adversity beautifully.
Later in Mass Effect 2, you meet Thane Krios, a drell assassin suffering from a terminal illness that is slowly killing him. The key difference between Mordin and Thane is while Mordin’s religious elements are inserted very subtly, Thane is much more overt without being in your face about it. If anything, Thane is the perfect example of a devout religious character who both holds his beliefs close to heart without being preachy or obtuse in doing so.
Thane’s belief system is a polytheistic (multiple deities) religion, with each deity fitting different aspects of his life. When questioned about this, he’ll even explain which ones he prays to depending on the matter. This is all done very matter of factly, and as a result, makes him feel more human rather than more alien. His beliefs are a natural part of how he lives his life in a way that many religious people across various faiths can relate. His beliefs also give him some comfort in the face of a complicated life, because it’s given him direction to atone for his past sins.
This isn’t to say that his religious beliefs justify killing, and in fact, he even at one point prays for forgiveness for any actions he may have to take if his son attempts to follow in his footsteps as an assassin. Thane fundamentally understands and views himself as a sinner, and is forced to choose between several less than ideal options while working towards what he believes. His every step brings compromise, and the outcome of his loyalty mission reflects that. If you succeed, he is overwhelming relieved his son has been spared a similar life of pain and regret.
Guilt and death are two fundamental aspects of Thane’s character arc, and are both heavy subjects for a religious character to contemplate. Thane’s entire species is plagued with illnesses due to their own mistakes in the past, and are only alive thanks to another species, the Hanar, saving them. Death is not simply a fact of life for his people, but a very intimately familiar foe. If you choose to help him save his son and help him achieve some healing where harm was inflicted, Thane grows to accept what time he has left. He does grow mournful if romanced, knowing how little time he has left, but even there he finds a silver lining in acceptance.
Acceptance is the third essential part of Thane’s character. Thane is not inherently nihilistic, although he does show some signs of existentialism. Instead, he finds solace in his beliefs and his actions to benefit others around him. When he sacrifices himself to stop Kai Leng in Mass Effect 3, he isn’t vengeful or bitter. In fact, Thane’s final act in Mass Effect 3 is possibly one of the best moments in games regarding religion. If you’ve helped his son avoid a life of killing, you find out Koylat Krios is now training to be part of his people’s priesthood, and he joins you and Thane for a final prayer.
In this final prayer, you can choose to either participate or sit it out. The prayer is said either way, and respects your personal choice for whatever reason you feel motivated. Unlike much mention of prayer in games, this is an actual, full-on prayer given over a minute of run time, which is virtually unheard of this industry. Except, by the end, you realize the prayer is not for Thane, who fades away while the prayer is said. Instead, Thane’s final prayer is for you, asking his gods to watch over you in the coming battle. In his last moments, Thane’s thoughts aren’t worried about his own being – he steps into the unknown willingly and with acceptance. What concerns him is your own well-being, because you’re still in a world of pain and war.
Thane is the prototypical example of what a religious character should be. His beliefs define him but are not his only attributes. His actions are influenced by his paradigm but he also is open to other perspectives and angles. His intentions are good but his flawed actions demonstrate his inherent humanity as a character. He is neither preachy nor are his beliefs underdeveloped. He is a fully developed character who is religious, not a “religious character” like so many other games would have portrayed him as. If you want to make a good character with religious beliefs, you have to take Thane’s portrayal into consideration. While his specific arc is unique to his medical circumstance, the themes it addresses are not.
Unfortunately, after Thane, now we’re diving into the more questionable territory of addressing religious subject matter in that of Samara, the Asari Justicar who joins your crew around the same time as Thane. She also overlaps with him in terms of dealing with guilt and having a unique religious belief that guides her actions. What’s not so great about her portrayal is that they decided to make a religious extremist character, but then mostly just made the religious aspects be a problem rather than offer unique questions. She comes across in a far more exoticized and “the other”-ified in what beliefs she does convey, and most of her motivations are far more secular than based in belief.
Samara’s call to arms wasn’t a passionate belief, but a genetic mismatch neither she nor her partner could have seen coming – Samara gives birth to daughters who are Ardat-Yakshi. An Ardat-Yakshi is, in essence, a succubus, and out of her three daughters, one, Morinth, has gone renegade and caused a string of murders over centuries. Samara gave up her old life and possessions to hunt Morinth down by following the code of the elite Asari Justicars. In essence, they’re basically a hybrid the Jedi from Star Wars if they were less worried about killing people.
One of the most obvious lines something went over the line with Samara is when she first explains to you about her hunt for Morinth and why she must do it. It’s not about simply stopping her daughter from causing harm, or atoning for mistakes she might have felt she allowed. No, instead, it’s about how killing Morinth is her “redemption”. Whereas Thane and Koylat reconcile and undo the damage, Samara and Morinth are introduced as the opposite. The only way for the galaxy to be safe is for Morinth to be stopped since she cannot be contained. Except, this kind of can be construed in some less than pleasant ways.
For one, the latest kill Morinth commits is with a young artistic woman on the downtrodden space station Omega. Morinth seduces the girl, introducing her to drugs and a destructive lifestyle before having sex and burning her out. If you’re noticing that this seems an awful lot like a narrative about a conservative woman dealing with her wild and crazy LGBTQ daughter, you’d be right. It seems the awkward writing and tropes scene in Ashley Williams weren’t entirely extracted from the series.
It’s not that in the writing that they don’t give legitimate reason to stop Morinth, and it was ambitious to try and portray a far more extreme and conservative viewpoint in a more ambiguous light than you’d expect from a Bioware production. The problem is that Mass Effect 2 tries to do this by making her actions seem completely justified and reasonable while the unsettling subtext remains. Instead of really exploring this or raising any meaningful questions, it’s drowned out by making Morinth a literal succubus so there’s no real debate happening here.
An alternative way of doing this could have just had Morinth commit an act that is considered taboo or heretical in Asari culture that a human could understand but either agree or disagree with. The damage done to Samara’s family and to Morinth’s life could be equally great, and you could really examine the nature of differences of opinion can drive us to further extremes. The Asari Justicar tenets later elaborated on in Mass Effect: Andromeda could have even been introduced sooner here, giving us a glimpse into a society where martial action and religious philosophy are one and the same. It’d be really interesting, but instead, we have a battle nun (with some really unfortunate cleavage in her armor design to boot) hunting down her sex obsessed murderer of a daughter. The mechanics and design of the loyalty mission and Samara’s character arc are themselves interesting, but the execution of the actual narrative is kind of horrendous. While we can sympathize with Samara’s guilt at the damage her daughter has wrought, it’s a simplistic sympathy wasted on what could be a far more compelling dialogue on the lengths a person will go for what they believe in.
What makes this pointedly obvious is the dialogue you have with Samara after helping her deal with Morinth. She informs you that she’s accepted she is likely to remain a Justicar the rest of her life, and she’s at peace with that. Except it’s pretty clear she’s already accepted that because she’s been hunting Morinth for literal centuries, and the role of a Justicar doesn’t seem like something you can just walk away from. So, that’s not really her arc here. Her arc was resolving the conflict with her daughter. Even when you first meet her, she’s hunting Morinth. That’s her only goal, and is evidenced by the remainder of her portrayal in the series.
In Mass Effect 3, Samara feels almost like an afterthought. Her mission involves stopping the villainous Reaper machines converting Ardat-Yakshi into horrifying monsters, but not much really happens with Samara. In fact, at the end when the sanctuary is destroyed and her one daughter remains, Samara will try to kill herself unless you intervene. Why? Because her remaining daughter is technically outside of the sanctuary, and she is apparently obligated to either kill herself or her daughter.
This twist comes is incredibly ham-fisted as far as moral choices go. This daughter even voluntarily went to the sanctuary to ensure she doesn’t hurt anyone with her condition, so it’s not like she’s a threat. Which, once again, could be an interesting line of discussion but that’s not what happens. Instead, we get a really contrived moral choice that’s not really a choice since most players aren’t going to pull the trigger.
Plus, the biggest mistake of this entire characterization? Yeah, there’s barely any religious aspect to it, even though Justicars are supposed to be these Jedi Knight-esque individuals. It’s definitely a moral code situation, but not an argument about fundamentalism, which is what it seems like Bioware was going for. I’ve known actual fundamentalists, and there’s far more interesting angles that could have been taken with this, such my example from earlier.
She’s basically the polar opposite of Thane’s portrayal, right down to an almost hilarious diametric opposite to that of Thane’s prayer. When you have final words with her on the Citadel, her parting words are “I don’t know if you believe in such things, but goddess go with you, Shepard” and then you just sort of shake hands and walk away. This is without even digging into Samara’s romance arc, which basically sees a Shepard of either gender having to continually push in defiance of Samara saying no due to her code. That part comes across as intended to be a star-crossed lovers situation, but instead is uncomfortable as hell in retrospect.
Still, even from the failure with Samara, there are valuable lessons. Such a character needs to be given time to develop fully and has to have more to them than a single goal. A fundamentalist character needs justification for their actions and the flaws in being so extreme also need to be explored, however uncomfortable they might be. A character with this viewpoint needs to be taken seriously and with respect, even if you disagree with their standing.
It’s not that Samara couldn’t have worked, but her execution is visibly out of step with what one can assume Bioware was shooting for. Instead of being an interesting examination of fundamentalism, she’s a discount Jedi Knight with a wonky, poorly defined moral code. Such a story angle needed far more time to develop than the twilight hours of Mass Effect 2, and Mass Effect 3 highlights how that lack of development hurt Samara’s place in the remainder of the storyline. She adds little to the world and barely anything to her species’ poorly defined religion (seriously, name one aspect about the Asari belief system besides they worship a goddess that gets brought up in the main series).
The problem is not the subject matter itself, but the execution and representation there-in. This is an angle worth exploring in a game, and it could have been easier for audiences to swallow in a sci-fi setting, but it wouldn’t be until Dragon Age 2 that we’d truly see Bioware explore fundamentalism in any notable capacity. Regardless, two out of three isn’t too bad when proper religious representation is so rare.
It’s not often that developers will approach these sorts of characters, usually under the excuse that they’ll be flamed for doing so. Except, we’ve got examples that speak to the contrary, and two of which you can look to plainly here as how to do it properly. Mordin and the Genophage arc both tie together ideas of Hinduism beautifully, and Thane is a perfect example in general of a person with religious beliefs co-starring in a game. Samara’s failure as a character highlights the pitfalls one must avoid, and still offers something by standing as a warning to writers considering including a fundamentalist character in their game.
A well-written religious character can exist in a video game. It’s not even that hard to conceive, once you understand the right steps and the wrong ones. I hope this piece has highlighted that for some developers out there, and that they take the time to add more excellent religious characters alongside the likes of Thane and Mordin. Next time, we’re gonna take a look at Mass Effect: Andromeda, because… boy, is there a lot to unpack there.
Elijah Beahm is a man who can’t stop talking about games, geeky things, and being super nerdy about religion. In addition to contributing here, he’s The Unabridged Gamer on YouTube and Editor-in-Chief at Indie Gamer Team. When not working, you’ll probably find him ranting on Twitter, maining Symmetra in Overwatch, writing, or replaying Dead Space 2 for the zillionth time.