Mass Effect 2 Overlord: The Struggles of Autistic Representation
A few things are important to note before we begin, at points, this will become hard to read as it deals with a varying degree of sensitive subjects including psychological manipulation, torture and intense ableism. This is difficult to write about but I think it’s important, and if you believe you’re incapable of reading something that deals with these subjects in explicit detail, you’d be better off leaving this page. Mass Effect 2 is my favourite game of all time and rather than writing a full thing on it right now (which would be too long and I’d need more money to be able to make it happen) I decided to focus on one of the most narratively challenging and emotional moments of the series.
The Overlord DLC at first, follows a standard basic premise of a Mass Effect DLC, something is going wrong on a facility and Commander Shepard, your avatar, must take their crew and resolve the situation, whatever it may be. You’re generally resolving violent problems by responding with an equal amount of force, discovering what’s wrong, making moral decisions to decide what the future may be and engaging with interesting unique characters. Overlord and another major DLC for ME2, Arrival, distinguish themselves from the typical Mass Effect sideplots the further their narratives progress, both by using the gradual presence of isolation to throw you into disarray as a player.
Since the action gameplay that the majority of the game is spent utilising is built off navigating with the crew you have with you to overcome your enemies. You can decide what of their abilities they use and who they use them on, navigate their positions to flank or charge opponents, and they provide the players with the constant comfort of knowing they always have a form of support alongside them. The most fun part of the game for me, beyond the engagement with your crew in dialogue sequences, is pausing the action to strategise in the heat of battle, deciphering what powers would be best used where and riding out the consequences of your successes and mistakes. By stripping away your support network at certain points, both Arrival and Overlord are more unnerving than the majority of the base game.
Arrival builds itself around isolation from the beginning to the end, with a brief exception in the middle that almost immediately gets subverted. You wander into a batarian prison trying to bust a scientist from your former military and decide whether or not to initiate violence or stealth your way through the facility. You cannot be with anyone else, you’re the lone wolf stalking their prey, with the rare choice in the series to totally exempt from casual violence. Once you reach her and some escaping occurs, your knowledge and expectations are taken away from you. The scientist is indoctrinated by the Reapers, the main antagonists of the series, and now believes that you must die. You latch onto this figure of a stranger because they provide you with the comfort that your crew does, giving the illusion of humanity in a realm of blackened walls and death, and you are punished for that lapse in logic. Arrival is arguably the bleakest single mission in the history of the series as no matter what morality you follow, there is nothing you can do to be less alone and there is nothing you can do to stop millions of people from dying. You can’t redeem the scientist or save her, you can’t end the apocalypse on the horizon, you can’t do anything but resort to the most dramatic violence you’ve committed in the series at this point to try and protect the entire galaxy for a little longer. A system dies because of you, and there is nothing you can do to change that. You cannot find solace or guidance in your crew next to you, there’s nothing but your own avatar facing the results of the choices they had to make, that they were never allowed not to.
By choosing to play the Arrival DLC, these events take place and so many beings die in front of you. You as a gamer are culpable to a certain degree for taking your Shepard on this journey, as it was you who busted out the scientist in the first place, and you who couldn’t find another way to stop the enemy from coming. By the time you’re back on your ship the Normandy, walking past the crew who you’ve missed dearly doesn’t feel right for the next few moments. There’s a chill of experiencing something that they weren’t there to suffer.
While the narrative makes this more effective, the isolation fundamentally messes with the core aspects of the gameplay as you can’t build your crew around your weaknesses and strengths. For example, the Infiltrator type, is predominantly focused on long range combat and tech abilities like sabotaging shields or synthetic enemies. In a standard mission with shorter range battles with more armoured enemies, your crew can be utilised to make up for the slack of your gameplay style, with biotics and more advanced weaponry helping you fulfill your goal as a unit. Arrival means that you have to switch up how you normally play the game, and if you aren’t prepared for it on harder difficulties, you are going to die a lot. Luckily Mass Effect 2 is a much better designed game than its predecessor and you can make your way through the mission with a pistol and no support without destroying your television, but it can be a frustrating experience if you aren’t prepared for the style you’re facing.
Overlord doesn’t have this specific problem but has the most flawed gameplay element in the entirety of 2. While it is more narratively compelling and overall superior to Arrival, Overlord offers a distinct mechanic only found in this and other DLC side missions, which is a series of vehicle sections guiding you from place to place. The second and third games almost completely deviate from the armoured space jeep driving around planets format after the negative reception of the Mako in the first Mass Effect, but elements of that mechanic have been brought back in a less than successful way. Since the core mechanics of the game aren’t based around vehicle manipulation or combat from a different perspective other than grounded, the movement is sloppier than it should be and any sequence involving armed combat can result in quick deaths on harder difficulties.
While it’s an improvement on the Mako, which is just broken, the vehicular puzzles on the path towards completing the several mini missions that Overlord consists of are infuriating. The way aerodynamics are used for the jumping improve on the Mako’s (whose jump never worked and only made you go further down than before) but the accuracy is flimsy and the vehicle has no weight to it. The advantage is that the environments are extremely beautiful, even today, which makes the traversing of these locales less soul crushing than the first game’s exploration of empty planets.
In between these vehicle segments, you experience the narrative of the mission and typical combat sequences with your crew. You’re tasked with stopping a rogue AI created for Project Overlord. Dr Gavin Archer is the only survivor left and he is the person who created this artificial intelligence. He works for Cerberus, the rogue elite force based on human interest that you’re either reluctantly or willingly working with to take down a greater evil. His attempt was to make a communication device between humans and the artificial lifeform known as the geth so they could understand their war strategies. Things did not go to plan, and their creation is waging war against them. Your job is to disable the shields for the facility where its physical form is contained and eventually go to take it down.
Outside of the vehicular moments as mentioned, you’re with your crew, taking down geth and powering your way through darkened scientific buildings that are covered with rubble. There’s a sense of decay in the world around you that starts to sink into you the further you progress on this paradise, and see the impact of human interference where there probably shouldn’t have been any. The game is scattered with little audio logs from the doctor and some of his staff, nothing major being revealed any time, but enough to make you suspicious at what the origins of this AI are. You can interrogate the doctor at the start but he is vague and mentions an incident with his brother that is framed as accidental. You power through some of the tedious aspects of the rest of the DLC (which shouldn’t take much longer than an hour) and you reach the gates of the facility, and that’s where everything changes. A somewhat extraneous slice of downloadable content becomes one of the most nightmarish and emotionally provocative experiences of my life, not just contained within video games.
This is where the isolation sets in, and you’re all alone with the spaces of memories no one should ever have to see. The fragments of time, of trauma, encased in holograms for eternity, the pain never erasable. The AI is Dr Archer’s brother David. He’s autistic. The creation of this being deriving power from David’s suffering was not accidental nor a choice on David’s part. Archer sees his brother’s knowledge of mathematics and wants to use him like a device for his benefit, while constantly looking down on him for not fulfilling the typical traits of “normal” humanity. He gaslights and emotionally abuses him throughout the memories, making light of his condition and subjecting him to unnecessary amounts of emotional and physical pain. You as the avatar are standing in this virtual reality of a boy’s worst nightmare and forcing yourself to see everything that happened to him. The suffering that took place under the image of the company you work for. You feel guilt even though you weren’t involved, that these are the people who you support simply by wearing their armour and flying in their ship.
Eventually, Archer forces David to embed himself with the machine during a meltdown and that’s when everything goes wrong. He is trapped in the worst moments of an autistic person’s life perpetually until you act to set him free. A meltdown forever, a meltdown because of someone he trusted and loved, pain that no one should ever have to even think about going through. Throughout the game, you hear this warbled screech that turns out to be a scream of pain, David’s desire to be set free from this overwhelming torture. In these memories you watch, you hear an equation that David latches onto as a coping device, something that never changes no matter what else happens. He repeats it over and over again to try and keep himself stable. But sometimes in this world, autistic people can’t stay stable, because people around us force things upon us that we don’t have the strength to cope with. Things that no one should ever have to feel. You can do nothing but watch, there’s no possibility of taking these pains away.
The more inside David’s brain you get, the more hectic it becomes. While the gameplay is pretty simplistic for 2’s standards, it feels perfect for the narrative device unlike the rover sequences earlier. Furthermore, it actually utilises the medium it takes place in to affect the player’s feelings on what they’re witnessing. Being the player is an entirely different experience to just having to watch someone else walk through an autistic person’s mind. You have to make the choice to see more of his pain, and you have the responsibility to power through any adversity that remains on the way to freeing him. So many games view their narrative progression as just like movies and that genuinely takes away from the amount of distinctive ways games can tell stories on their own terms. Overlord doesn’t fall into the trap that many others would have, making your control crucial to the emotional devastation that comes throughout these sequences.
You eventually succeed at freeing David from his shackles after a combat sequence, and have to see the results of what this stress has done to his body. The camera shows a little too much of the physical strain that this has inflicted on his body. While it’s necessary to show the varying degrees of damage that ableist experimentation causes, the amount of times it cuts back to his stretched open eyes made me nauseous, and I wish that they’d been able to get him down from his prison before the culminating dialogue. However, none of this comes across as exploitation, because of the way the final scene of the DLC is framed.
Shepard reacts with fury towards the doctor who did this to his flesh and blood, a person who he forced into something that could have killed him. Even in the Paragon run, violence against the doctor is viewed as the right thing to do, hitting him in the face is an interrupt for the good side of the moral code. If you play the game as a good guy (and even if you don’t, playing this DLC as Renegade is shameful) then Shepard shows an unbelievable amount of compassion for a character who is often controlled in situations like these. The scathing ferocity of their vocals contrasted with the demand that Archer never come near his brother again, rejecting his begging for forgiveness in favour of making a decision that allows David to have a shot of recovery, a life away from the person that betrayed him, makes me cry a lot.
This whole final sequence, from the overwhelming nature of the images of his past, to reaching him and being able to save him, is remarkably nuanced and empathetic for a video game that many might not have expected to tackle a topic like this. There’s no implication that he deserved it, Shepard does not talk about him like an animal unlike his brother, and 3 gives him the chance to speak in his own terms. He gets to live if you make the choice to save him. After all that you go through in this series, the feeling of being able to give an autistic person a shot at a better life, despite their intense amounts of trauma, that might be the most beautiful thing possible. He gets to repeat his equation again as well, it never changed, unlike everything else, it’ll stay the same and this time, I hope it can help him cope.
As an autistic man with trauma, it’s difficult for me to discuss this, let alone play it. It’s triggering at points, obviously to less significant extremes, but it reminds me of the times I’ve been taken advantage of and gaslit because of my condition. It reminds me of the emotional and physical violence I’ve inflicted upon myself because of my condition and the way people have reacted to it. But most importantly, it reminds me that there are always going to be people who care about me, regardless of how well they know me, regardless of my condition or difficulties. Suffering doesn’t have to last forever. Either you’ll have someone to save you, or one day, you’ll be able to do it yourself. I am strong, I am brave, I am a survivor. Tragedy ending in hope for a better future is all I could ever ask for. I’m grateful that my favourite game of all time cares about people like me, even if it isn’t the representation I’ve always dreamed of. I’m grateful that in a time where anti autistic shit seems louder and scarier than ever, that a high profile video game made it clear that the people who hurt us should eat shit. I’m hopeful that one day, we won’t need stories like this anymore. Hopefully one day.