Hitting the Restart Button: Mass Effect Andromeda

Back in March—the day it came out—I started playing Mass Effect Andromeda. But I am an academic and it is spring, so I’m still playing Andromeda because I don’t have time to do pretty much anything but grade and scrape together conference papers in the spring. That said… Andromeda has me doing a lot of thinking, not about exploration or space, specifically, but about what happens when all of the proverbial sh*t hits the fan all at once.

Because, let’s be honest, that’s kind of what American politics looks like right now.

Andromeda is interesting to me, particularly at the moment, because it hits the restart button on the civilization we came to know and love (a lot) in the previous Mass Effect trilogy. I suppose one might say that it’s a sign of developer laziness, using the Andromeda Initiative fiction (AI sent a whole pile of people in arks to the Andromeda galaxy 600 years before the start of the game, somewhen in the middle of either ME1 or ME2, but definitely before the events of ME3) to keep the same species (there are new ones, too, who live in Andromeda), the same technology (mostly), and the same general aesthetic. You could call it “lazy,” I suppose, or you could call it “realistically efficient” and “not a waste of really expensive design and art assets.” Besides, people LIKE them, so why get rid of them entirely?

But that’s not what I find compelling about Andromeda. What I find compelling is the fact that I’m playing it to escape to a fantasy where civilization has gone to proverbial and literal hell and we get a chance to start over, to rebuild civilization the way we want it to be built rather than relying on centuries of imperialistic assholery. Sure, imperialistic assholery is one of your options as you play as Pathfinder Ryder (male or female, your choice!), but you can also choose protectionism or expansionism or science!

For example, on Eos, you have an opportunity to ally the colonists (okay, you have to be rather imperialistic, but you can be benevolent imperialist if you try hard enough) with some outlaws who have found a water source on an otherwise mostly-desert planet. You can also exchange water access for natural gas, using the fuel to kickstart the economy on Eos. Or you can not do that, as one of your companions reminds you that it would pollute the air and start the global warming process, and Eos is already having all sorts of atmospheric problems without you and your fracking adding to it.

I love that Andromeda gives us the chance to go back, in essence, and not make the same mistakes again—or, at least, to try not to make those mistakes. It isn’t always possible. You can be hostile to the Angara, but you do have to try to get along with them to a limited extent. You can also try to be nice to the Kett, but that ends rather quickly when they immediately try to shoot you. You’re only human, after all (even if there is an AI embedded in your brain… thanks, Dad).

There are a lot of things about Andromeda which are enormously problematic. You have to be imperialist—there just isn’t a way around that if you want to play a character in a game about space colonialism. You can’t not settle on alien worlds. You also don’t really have the choice to settle on unsettled worlds—you can settle on worlds that are mostly ruined, and then fix them, but you have to share space with the Angara, the Kett, or both. Also, dinosaurs. (I feel like someone really wanted to throw in a call-back to Tomb Raider, so Havarl has dinosaur-alien-wildlife, but, alas, no T-Rex… exactly.)

There are also the cultural problems that Mass Effect games just continuously run into—they’ve managed to give us more or less gender parity among alien species this time (there are male and female NPC krogan, turians, humans, salarians, angara, and kett), but the Angara as a people are a bit disturbingly New World.

One of the benefits of the original ME trilogy was that humans were characterized as the new-comers to the galactic empire—and took it over, more or less, anyway, which presented a rather problematic white-savior (human-savior, really, but same difference in space opera) complex, but at least we were the newbies.

In Andromeda, the council races are the newbies, but they are somehow more technologically and intellectually advanced than the Angara and definitely less “savage” than the Kett (who do a lot of screaming before your AI figures out what their words mean and look very… bony in a creepy bone-mask sort of way). The Angara, much as I like Jaal (the Angaran companion on Ryder’s ship), are so very New World “Noble Savage.” It’s downright uncomfortable sometimes.

Ryder can fix their problems for them after a few days (weeks?) on their planets, Ryder can operate the ancient technology on their planets and they can’t, and Ryder is capable of saving them from not only the Kett, but themselves. They are designed as being very overtly emotional—this is, apparently, a cultural trait among Angara which is frequently discussed—which is a standard Noble Savage trope that was applied to the indigenous peoples of North, Central, and South America from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. (I don’t think this was intentional on the part of BioWare’s designers, but it is nevertheless true.)

It’s also—necessarily—expansionist in a way that calls back to the era of American Expansionism from the nineteenth century which led to the genocide (intentional and unintentional) of millions of indigenous peoples in the Americas and the extermination of native plant and animal species. This is, in fact, why I feel terrible about shooting any of the bugs or hostile creatures on any of the planets in Andromeda, because I just keep thinking “This could be an American Bison.” I feel terrible about doing my (Ryder’s) job, because I can’t shake the legacy of imperialism which necessarily accompanies the project of colonization, even in space.

So in many ways, there are huge problems with the pioneer fantasy being presented in Andromeda, and they sometimes get in the way of my enjoyment of the game because I can’t help but feel the significant weight of centuries of white guilt (which is in and of itself also problematic, but so is everything). I also know that this game wouldn’t be interesting if there weren’t alien cultures to encounter and if Ryder was a clueless wanderer instead of an expansionist badass, so I get it. But that’s because our narrative fantasies in the West are almost all imperialistic, which makes me uncomfortable, as well.

But our stories are what they are, and as much as I would like to see gaming stretch its narrative bounds, this game is not where that is going to happen, and that’s okay. It may seem like I disapprove of Andromeda, but I really don’t. I’m enjoying the game (the vast majority of the time) and I am really finding a lot of catharsis in being able to found a new human-Council civilization that isn’t completely based on genocide and violence, but, rather, curiosity and discovery.

Andromeda, so far, is giving me the chance to begin again, to jettison the baggage of the industrial revolution, of slavery and racial oppression, of American Exceptionalism and Western imperialism and radical religious belief (pick your favorite—since we can trace radical Islam all the way back as a reactionary development in response to the Crusades and Inquisition, which themselves were pretty radical militant Christianity… just sayin’). In Andromeda, we are able to start over with people who, although diverse in appearance and beliefs (if not in space-suit-size), all share the common desire to build a civilization that works, that brings together the best they each have to offer, and which is capable of harmony and progress.

Because, right now, when I unplug my headset, the world I find myself in is far more dystopic than the chaos of Andromeda where everything is likely to kill you in the next five minutes. At least there I know that the people I’m working for and with have good intentions. They aren’t beholden to any corporations, because there aren’t any yet. They aren’t trying to vie for power because there is so much of a vacuum that survival is far more important than politics… at least so far (because there are hints that, even in another galaxy, people are still people—aka, assholes). But in Andromeda, I have the ability to make a difference with the actions I take and the words I choose to a degree that I simply don’t here on earth in this petty country called the United States.

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