io9’s Kyle Munkittrick contends that the Mass Effect series is the “most important science fiction universe of our generation” because, among other things, it presents human beings as delusional regarding their cosmic importance. He writes:
The benefits reaped from making Mass Effect an action-adventure video game would be wasted if the message were not what it is. Mass Effect has a simple message: human beings are delusional about their importance in the grand scheme of things.
Mass Effect starts with humanity in the galaxy where it should have been in the United Federation of Planets: unnoticed among the other minor species struggling to prove to the Council why they add anything of value to the civilization that is Citadel Space. Such a message would be laughable were it made central to Star Wars or Star Trek, where nearly every important character is human. Star Wars and Star Trek start with the assumption that humans will be important in galactic civilization. Why? In part because the medium forced that decision, but more so because both universes assume that human beings add meaning to the universe. Mass Effect doesn't make such an assumption. Mass Effect never lets you forget that we might not add one jot of meaning or benefit to intelligent life beyond our solar system.
Mass Effect's message is designed to open up narrative complexity by destabilizing the player's sense of confidence in his or her own skin. By undermining the value of being human, threatening and novel lifeforms become relatable, minority aliens become allies, and human intentions become questionable. As an action-adventure game, the player is more likely to become invested in the message because the setting, cast, and interactivity of Mass Effect creates a more visceral emotional connection to the narrative. All of which serves to enable Mass Effect's philosophy.
As for that philosophy, it’s essentially a spin on H.P. Lovecraft’s “Cosmicism”.
Cosmicism is not merely the idea that there is no meaning in the universe. It's far worse. Instead, the argument is that there is meaning, but it is so far above and beyond human understanding that we can never attain meaningful existence. Despite writing at the turn of the last century, H.P. Lovecraft's Cosmicism is something with which no major narrative of humanity's journey through the stars has dealt.
Until Mass Effect came along, that is. He concludes:
Mass Effect is the first blockbuster franchise in the postmodern era to directly confront a godless, meaningless universe indifferent to humanity. Amid the entertaining game play, the interspecies romance, and entertaining characters, cosmological questions about the value of existence influence every decision. The game is about justifying survival, not of mere intelligent life in the universe, the Reapers are that, but of a kind of intelligence. Therein the triple layered question — What value does galactic civilization bring to the universe; What value does humanity bring to galactic civilization, and What value do I bring to humanity — forces the player to recontextualize his or her participation in the experiment of existence.
I'm not saying that Mass Effect provides any answers. The value of Mass Effect as a science fiction universe is that it is a critical starting point for discussion about the purpose of humanity in a materialistic universe. Without an answer to that question, there is no real reason for Ender to defeat the Buggers, or for humanity to seek out new life and new civilizations, or for us to not let non-organic life be the torch bearer for intelligence in the universe. Mass Effect confronts us with a female hero of our own creating, with the deepest implications of diversity, with the most dramatic questioning of the value of what it means to be human. Whether you are a feminist, a transhumanist, a theologist, a proponent of space exploration, a pacifist, a human exceptionalist, a bioethicist, a scientist, or a philosopher, Mass Effect demands you rethink your world.