The conquering of virgin territory is quite an old fantasy given new life by countless installments of genre fiction. Our very language locks us into a certain mindset when we talk about “colonizing” other planets, an apt word that nevertheless cannot shake off the associations with what it has meant on our own world. Militaristic dominion; slavery; genocide; cultural dissolution. How can sci-fi shed that baggage? Is it even possible to tell a story about brave explorers colonizing new worlds without evoking the conquistador and his terrors?
The quiet, diffuse imperialism of Mass Effect: Andromeda is offset by innumerable, equally quiet reckonings with that old imperial imagery--and the result is a somewhat confused affair at war with itself.
To deliver the fantasy--always and forever a power fantasy--you have to allow the player to indulge in the unethical. They have to be able to shoot and kill aliens with impunity, they have to be objectively better than the natives, and they have to be the fulcrum upon which all progress is levered. In several ways, Andromeda meets all that criteria. You bring salvation to the native Angara after centuries of stalemate with the vastly more powerful Kett (whose actual name you never learn throughout the hundred-hour long game), you’re treated early on to a member of your squad committing a lesser war crime against the implacably marauding aliens, and your technology is more advanced than theirs; all the ingredients are present.
But there is a guilty and almost endearingly earnest B-narrative in the midst of it all that contrasts with some of this.
"The game has some awareness of the fire it plays with and it’s to be commended for that."
Games like Andromeda are authored by many hands, and it’s rarely so apparent as it is when one looks at how it deals with the themes of colonization. On the one hand you’re presented with a classically jingoistic tale of spacefaring heroes crossing the ocean of space to beat some implacably evil, ugly alien bad guys.
On the other, you have something that owes a lot to Star Trek and its sense of peaceful exploration. Your ship, notably, has no offensive weapons. The job of a Pathfinder is to have, as Foster Addison said in her memorably awful line, “path found something.” Inasmuch as that particular Yogi Berra-ism makes any sense, it means that a Pathfinder’s first job is to explore and find habitable planets for the sleepers aboard the Nexus.
The Andromeda Initiative has “first contact” procedures to ensure peace, and a charming, almost dorkily earnest welcome center aboard the Nexus to introduce native Andromedans to the new species who’ve shown up on their doorstep. You’re reminded (and given the opportunity to say) that the colonists, as outsiders, should be respectful to the Angara and recognize that this is their home. One can even say this of the Kett, as a way of explaining their hostility. “How would you feel if aliens with guns showed up suddenly on your planet?” you can ask. The game has some awareness of the fire it plays with and it’s to be commended for that.
Andromeda is at its best when you get involved in the life of each planet you visit, undertaking the necessary work to make them more habitable. It gives an almost miraculous edge to being a Pathfinder, making you a lifebringer among the stars.
But when you go back to mass slaughter of everything from aliens to colonists to native wildlife, you’re stuck back in that tiresome idiom of progress that undercuts those more peaceful themes. Even this would be somewhat more forgivable if the new alien species introduced weren’t so bland.
"The attempts to add some degree of nuance always feel dissonant against the Chosen One style fantasy that games like this still try to sell."
Part of what made the original Mass Effect so compelling was the, if you’ll pardon the awkward expression, humanity of its aliens. Classic sci-fi and fantasy tend to make humans the versatile and diverse species, while every alien race is rigidly locked into a very narrow band of stereotypes. In Mass Effect, though there’s a median for each race (Krogan are militarist toughs, Asari cerebral aesthetes, Salarians cunning scientists) there’s ample diversity shown that exceeds each stereotype. You have thuggish Asari and sensitive Krogan, for instance. In so doing, BioWare did an excellent job showing how sapience, in any species, was likely to lead to diversity of thought, personality, and perspective.
There’s none of that here. The Kett are horrifically evil, unattractive, and implacable--indeed, their entire religion seems based on committing the very crimes you struggle against. There are hints of a political conflict within the Kett force, who are also invaders in the Heleus Cluster, subjugating the native Angara. One increasingly vocal group wants to go home, while their maniacal Archon wants to press on. But that’s as close as we come to anything approximating nuance.
The Angara are a touch better. Their voices are represented with three different English accents, and this is actually explained as being the result of different Angaran languages and dialects being expressed through their lingua franca trade language. There’s a lot to like here; aliens are often portrayed as having one language, an oddity when we humans have literally hundreds. Showing Angarans as possessed of some of that linguistic diversity is a wonderfully humanizing move.
But that’s about all I can say for them. This is important because the portrayal of the alien other whose land you’re exploring and colonizing is central to our predicament.
As critic Dia Lacina makes clear in her scathing take on colonial themes in RPGs:
it's represented in systems that demand binary conflict: player vs. baddies. Games are quick to establish an "other" that must be defeated or subjugated, along with material resources that must be acquired, expended and reacquired.
The Angara are portrayed as sympathetic, themselves the victims of what can justly be described as the Kett’s imperialism. But they are also put in the position of being the technologically inferior species that you, to an extent, have to save from themselves with your superior knowhow and broad-minded views. It’s the Angara who are portrayed as mistrustful xenophobes--not without cause, as the murderous Kett were their first contact with an alien species--but it can leave a bad taste in your mouth as it comes off as an enlightened, soft form of colonialism. ‘We must teach these noble creatures the ways of galactic cosmopolitanism, which they are too backward to come to on their own.’
But then again, those many hands writing this plot all have their say. Some Angara are portrayed as xenophiles, eager to meet and learn about the new creatures in their cluster. Others, like the Moshae, a spiritual leader, are portrayed as wise (though this is a trope in its own right), and can be given the opportunity to assume leadership roles over a nascent political union between the Angara and the colonists. Still, the fact that such a thing is yours to give, rather than in the gift of the people who actually live there, rankles.
This, again, is where the power fantasy runs up against the themes. You’re the mighty Pathfinder, with power over all galactic events. What player wouldn’t want to be that? Yet this is at odds with the realities of diplomacy and the complexities inherent to being a newly arrived species in an already-inhabited cluster of stars. The attempts to add some degree of nuance always feel dissonant against the Chosen One style fantasy that games like this still try to sell.
There is freedom and art within limits, and much to explore in the territory of constrained power. Andromeda would have been better served by delving into that, rather than serving up another cliched guns-blazing conqueror fantasy.
This matters despite all the usual protests. Such ideas and themes invariably resonate with our own very real history; that history provides the context which gives those themes meaning in the first place. A lovely little soliloquy from Suvi, your science officer, makes the point. She romanticizes the intergalactic journey by likening it to the “old days” on Earth when one went exploring on those parts of the map that said “There Be Dragons.” We’re locked into this metaphor, and even though science fiction is supposed to be the domain of imaginative speculation, we keep circling back to this theme, in thrall to centuries’ old history that we can’t escape.
Our mental rubric for space colonization comes, in part, from the definitive template of European colonization on Earth. Andromeda demonstrates clear attempts at challenging and militating with that legacy, but still ends up with a kinder, gentler form of it.
Only when we escape the terra nullius fantasy of colonization can we truly begin to make thoughtful games about the subject.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.