New Galaxy, Same Problems: Mass Effect Andromeda

The problems with Mass Effect Andromeda are not the kind that earn games poor ratings or the kind that cause fans to become irrationally irate–although, to be honest, Andromeda has a few of those, as well, including a fairly horrifying animation problem which left all the faces inhumanly wooden until a recent update–but the kind which reveals some of the deep-seated issues which have always plagued human (particularly Western) civilization.

One of these issues is especially clear in science fiction and fantasy: that of cultural uniformity, or the practice of making a culture homogeneous across all its members (with one possible exception… for instance, Garrus Vakarian in the original Mass Effect trilogy who constantly told Shepard and us that he “wasn’t a very good Turian”). We–Westerners, especially Americans–tend to do this not only to our aliens and our elves, but to actual people, both people of color within our borders and to pretty much everyone outside of them.

All Chinese people practice Tai Chi and all Japanese people like Anime and all Africans (we overgeneralize them into a continent rather than a country, usually, which is even worse) wear grass skirts and run barefoot.

These are of course idiotic things to say, but they are the things we think even if we know them to be ludicrous if we say them out loud.

But that doesn’t stop us from doing the same thing in our books, movies, and games. Andromeda is no exception.

For the most part, Andromeda keeps the same species (and cultural homogeneity) from the original series, where humanity (of course) is unusually diverse in terms of its colors, ages, accents, and stories about their families and home towns. Although BioWare has more than your average amount of human diversity, especially in Andromeda, where there are people of a variety of colors on the Tempest (your ship), the Hyperion (your ark), and the Nexus (the central hub), its aliens suffer from both physiological and cultural monotony.

Until Mass Effect 3, in fact, we hadn’t even met a female of either the Turian or Krogan species. Andromeda distributes genders fairly well, even having several significant figures of both genders across multiple species (although why they all have two genders, with the exception of the Asari, is still not terribly clear).

Yes, all the models are the same across the gender-species distribution (all female Turians have the same body, all human males have the same body, etc.), but there is far more variance among the familiar–humanity–than among the alien. This is the same thing we do among ourselves, particularly in the US. We talk about how we vary from state to state, region to region, discuss our local cuisines and traditions, identify with our cities and our neighborhoods, but when it comes to other peoples, other cultures, we assume they are all the same. We even go so far as to believe–which has been demonstrated scientifically–that they (whoever they are) all look the same.

In Andromeda, the Kett–a race of evil aliens who want (ironically) to turn all other species into Kett through genetic manipulation–all look the same across classes. They all wear the same thing, sound almost entirely the same, and are indistinguishable from one “level” to the next. Their culture, such as it is, consists of a cult-esque religious devotion to homogenization, which they call “Exaltation.” Although they seem to have “levels” within the hierarchy (which are distinguished by appearance, voice, and difficulty to kill), it is still fairly difficult to tell them apart from one another.

Andromeda‘s friendly species, the Angara, are only marginally better in terms of diversity–they at least come in different colors and have a few choices of accents, which is actually a little confusing (ranging from accents which sound African, Caribbean, Australian, and European), if somewhat more realistic (the confusion comes because most of the regular Mass Effect species sound the same). However, they are strangely Noble Savage, and their culture is almost completely uniform, despite their horror at the thought of being Exalted.

The hallmark of Angaran culture is emotion; the Angara emote openly and publicly in a way that–probably in spite of the intention of the developers to encourage their players (especially their male players) to be more openly emotional–is almost uncomfortable and seems very childlike. Add to this the Angaran fear of aliens (their only other encounter with alien species is the Kett, who want to kill or kidnap them and turn them into Kett), and the species as a whole reads as supremely innocent and in need of protection. When you add to this the fact that Ryder (via the player) is able to use technology native to Andromeda (created by the species who engineered the Angara, we learn) and the Angara can’t, and that Ryder and company essentially are able to rescue, terraform, and revitalize all of Heleus in the short span of time they are there while the Angara have had centuries and failed.

Now I know that this is “just a video game” (take that with the mountain of proverbial salt that it requires), but it’s time that we stop excusing our latent bigotry as “just entertainment,” because it isn’t. We do it every day to people who don’t look like us, don’t speak like us, and don’t believe what we believe. We have to recognize the humanity in those different from us, and that means that we need to see them as individuals, not as representatives of their race, their sexuality, their religion. They may be a part of those things, but no individual represents the sum of their culture.

So while this is a problem with Andromeda–especially because Ryder is the savior of an entire galaxy in which she has just arrived and about which she knows next to nothing–it isn’t Andromeda‘s problem, it’s a problem with our entire culture and has been since Europeans first decided they were better than everyone else and started engaging in imperialist practice. We stopped seeing other peoples, other cultures, as people and started seeing them as chattel, commodities where one is the same as the next. And in order for us to stop doing this in our stories (our movies, our games, our books), we have to stop doing it to each other.

New galaxy, same old problems.

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