In the opening moments of Mass Effect: Andromeda, the player character Ryder awakens from cryogenic stasis after 634 years and is greeted by two shipmates. The first explains that you're a member of the Pathfinder team (an elite group chosen to find a new home for the 20,000 colonists on board). The second cracks a joke with clear colonialist undertones: "Could you make it someplace tropical?"
That's exactly when I decided, unequivocally, I'm not touching this game.
And it sucks. I've been a longtime BioWare fan. I enjoyed the first three Mass Effects despite their gameplay flaws and sometimes questionable narrative and thematic decisions. Knights of the Old Republic renewed what I thought was a dead interest in Star Wars. Dragon Age 2 brought me more joy than I thought possible. But BioWare, despite having queer characters and people of color in its games, seems to have just stopped caring.
Andromeda is the newest release in a much-loved franchise about smooching aliens and touring the galaxy while armed to the teeth. The heroes are the apex of human exceptionalism. I'm just so done with this kind of crap in video games.
Andromeda is the newest release in a much-loved franchise about smooching aliens and touring the galaxy while armed to the teeth. The heroes are the apex of human exceptionalism.
Christopher Columbus was a "pathfinder" too
Like Ryder, Christopher Columbus was literally a pathfinder. While he failed at delivering Spain a new trade route to India, he brought them a tropical island. Whether the opening to Mass Effect: Andromeda is aware of this or not, I can't say. It seems too obvious to be unintentional, but the sequence is not critical or transparent enough to hold up as criticism. Either way, the parallels between Ryder and Columbus are hard to dismiss.
Exploration is anything but an inherent moral good.
Modern society still lauds exploration, enshrining it as a virtue with holidays like Columbus Day. We act as though exploration is pure and admirable, and that the sacrifices made only impact the explorer. Exploration is anything but an inherent moral good. European exploration of the Americas during a period known as the Columbian Exchange brought with it scores of invasive flora, fauna and horrific disease that ravaged the indigenous populations. Then, as exploration turned to settlement, the settlers turned to genocide.
Colonialism is never about sharing resources or space. The entire concept exists because the imperial need for resources and space is ever expanding. Colonialism is a machine whose only real function is to consume and grow.
"Fight for a new home"
The most recent Mass Effect: Andromeda trailer asks players to "Fight for a new home," which is the tip of the sword named colonialism. Fighting for a new home is the story U.S. history books use to describe the settlement of America: intrepid explorers, peaceful pilgrims and enterprising merchants who just wanted to peacefully coexist with the "noble savages" who occupied North America and whose "barbarism" forced those settlers to take up guns and pacify the indigenous inhabitants.
One of Ryder's shipmates also refers to the Pathfinder crew as "visitors," but home is not a place where you visit. It's where you've decided to stay — even if it means you're going to slaughter everyone who was there before you showed up. This is the colonialist legacy. Having a non-playable Pathfinder character frame their mission in this light could speak to the self-deception colonizers willingly do to justify their violent entitlement, or it could just be sloppy writing used to set up an excuse for the player to slaughter the enemy other.
Colonialism and video games are directly linked
I have zero faith that Mass Effect: Andromeda will manage to be a nuanced or critical look at colonialism. Maybe I'm wrong. I could very well be, and I'd be overjoyed if I were.
Big-budget "AAA" games will never offer a critical lens to explore the real consequences of colonialism. It actually shows up more often in video games than you might think. Most often 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.
AAA games will never offer a critical lens to explore the real consequences of colonialism.
Then there's the 4X genre of games, which literally stands for explore, expand, exploit and exterminate. In these video games, nations explore beyond their boundaries and expand into those newly "discovered" territories. In the Civilization series, for example, players actively exploit resources and natives while exterminating any opposition to their hegemony.
Games often play at narratives involving colonialist concepts or colonialism and its aftershocks — Nathan Drake and Lara Croft explore, pillage and destroy relentlessly in their respective Uncharted and Tomb Raider series.
To its credit, Far Cry 2 takes a conflicted look at fictionalized post-colonial Africa, and Metal Gear Solid 5's most cogent politics are anti-colonial. But examples like these are few and far between.
BioWare has always had a problem with colonialism
When I first heard that the new Mass Effect would deal with colonialism, I was worried. The first three games didn't exactly give me hope, and other BioWare titles weren't any better. Dragon Age's depiction of elves as a less-than-nuanced mashup of mostly Native American and Roma cultures was indelicate. One reveal in Inquisition even blames the subaltern Elves for their own oppression.
Then came the marketing blitz for Andromeda.
"We're explorers, not an army," we learn in a scene from the second cinematic Andromeda trailer. This is followed by a montage of Ryder's crew gearing up to presumably battle the Archon — presented in an earlier scene as yet another grotesque and violent alien other commanding a vast military force.
Human exceptionalism is a driver of the original Mass Effect trilogy, which can be traced back to BioWare's initial white, male and all-American protagonist, Shepard. Our hero is given carte blanche to traverse, exploit and annihilate across the Milky Way in service of pursuing a rogue agent and destroying the Geth — a violent, savage and mysterious extraterrestrial other. It's difficult to divorce this human exceptionalism from the history of American imperialism.
BioWare also has a history of setting up the enemy other as an instigator, diminishing any moral or ethical considerations in its main narratives. The Geth massacre the colony on Eden Prime in Mass Effect and the game sets up the player to use this as justification for any reprisal.
Andromeda appears to do much the same in its first hour. Ryder's team falls under immediate attack despite attempts at peaceful communication on their part and all hell breaks loose. The humans are just fighting back.
Given BioWare's history, Andromeda will likely conclude with a bland critique about how both sides are wrong. At most, I expect the game will systemically encourage players to colonize at will, only to offer brief chastisement for engaging in those systems. However, it could also just as easily high-five you for every outpost you construct, feed you dopamine as you extract resources and give you a ridiculous sex scene with an alien whose entire species you might soon wipe out.
I don't know what BioWare will bring with the conclusion of this game, but with everything they've given me so far, I just don't trust them enough to care anymore.