Monthly Archives: January 2019

Colonialism… IN SPACE!

While replaying Mass Effect: Andromeda I’m struck by one particular element of its central narrative: Colonialism. The game’s story sees a bunch of pioneers from the Milky Way, the Andromeda Initiative, arriving in the Andromeda Galaxy, ready to explore and set up a new life and all that. Turns out, their chosen chunk of Andromeda — the Heleus Cluster — is already inhabited, by the native angara and the invading kett. If the Initiative is to set up shop here, they’re gonna have to navigate relations with the other two species here.

All this sounds an awful lot like a sort of colonialism redux. A technologically advanced outsider group arrives in a new place and starts throwing their weight around. Though the angara are as advanced as your typical science fiction race — faster than light travel, holograms, etc — they are also a fallen group, the shadow of a magnificent civilization laid low. There’s no doubt that they are the Other and, when compared to the Initiative and their sleek aesthetics, comparatively primitive.

The comparison here is fair: although the Initiative is composed of humans from a variety of ethnicities in addition to aliens from across the Milky Way, within the narrative they are still outsiders entering into another group’s territory. Sure, it’s all a galaxy away, but it is a story that exists in our world, and so is seen through that lens. Dress the boats as spaceships all you want, colonialism remains colonialism.

Of course, this is Mass Effect, a series too self-aware to blithely reenact Columbus. The Initiative is splintered, the same Scourge that brought down the angara throws a massive wrench in the Initiative’s intricate plans. The garden worlds are wastelands and attempts at settling has proven deadly. The narrative in Andromeda is changed: the colonizers aren’t quite marching in triumphant; they’re a scrappy group trying to pull it all together. The Initiative isn’t here to conquer the angara, they want an alliance.

It helps that there’s also the kett, the de facto villains of the game and, narratively, the actual force of colonialism. Like the Initiative, the kett hail from beyond the Heleus Cluster. Unlike the Initiative, these guys have no use for cultural exchange. The kett are conquerors, exterminating the angara or exalting them — assimilating their DNA into their own and transforming the angara into drone-like footsoldiers. Within the context of the game’s narrative, exaltation is seen as monstrous and barbaric. On a meta level, the complete annihilation and absorption of a race seems not unlike a science-fiction reinterpretation of the conquistadors.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and so the Initiative winds up allied with the angara against the kett. The folks from the Milky Way aren’t the colonizers, how could they be when the kett are here following a page from Cortes’ rulebook? The dynamic between the kett and the angara — along with the Initiative being on their off-foot — means Andromeda can safely tell a story about exploring colonizers without having to really confront the problematic nature of colonialism. The Initiative, and therein the game itself, is absolved of malicious colonialist undertones because the villainous kett are the bad colonizers; the Initiative is allying itself with the locals!

Yet the game does fall into the trap of the White Savior narrative. No, the (human) members of the Initiative aren’t all white, and the player’s Pathfinder can be whatever race you want them to be; but just as the undertones of colonialism play out within the relationship between the angara  and Initiative, so does this one. At the start of the game, the angara are in a limbo: their civilization has fallen and they’re losing a war of attrition with the kett. It’s the Pathfinder and the Initiative — and their technology — that both turns the tides of the fight and helps the angara reclaim some of their past. The Pathfinder is the outsider who helps — teaches — the natives their own ways.

At the end of the day, of course, this isn’t all terrible. There is a lot of leeway afforded science-fiction, and Andromeda does do good work to avoid ascribing the more problematic aspects of colonialism to its heroes. If anything, I’m fascinated by the way this game dances around with the topic and its ramifications. Because I could just play the game, or at least that’s what I tell myself as I think way too much about it.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

War Games But Without The War

I’m playing Mass Effect: Andromeda again, trying to polish off my second playthrough and nab that elusive Platinum trophy. With the sheen of “Oooh, it’s new” worn off, the game is decidedly a buggy mess, UI popups stay on screen long after they should have disappeared and I’ve spent an entire cutscene viewing my character as a party member blocked the camera (after we walked through a door whose opening animation didn’t happen).

It’s a bummer, really, because there’s such promise in it as an idea. A group of explorers, millions of lightyears away from everything they know, strike disaster and have to make do with what they’ve got. There’s first contact with a hostile alien society, and then again with a friendly one. One thing that makes Andromeda really stand out, though, is that for all the fighting and all, the Andromeda Initiative is a fundamentally civilian organization. They ain’t trying to be conquerers, nor are they an army outfitted with warships and other such weaponry — most all of the Initiative’s ships are unarmed.

You play as the Pathfinder, Ryder, and yes, you’re fighting outlaws, genocidal Kett, and ancient Remnant robots, but the narrative as a whole is less about a war than it is exploration and setting up colonies to find a new life. You’re not a member of a group of warfighters, you’re explorers (who are good at fighting, yes). Compare this to the prior Mass Effect games. In the second, you were putting together a team to fight an existential threat, and the third saw you fighting said existential threat. It’s less pronounced in the second, where Shepherd is former military, though one who has thrown in with a militant pro-human organization whose leader believes Shepard is the only one who can stop a mysterious alien threat. There’s a lot of emphasis put on Shepard’s military background and how he’s the one who can fight this war.

It is a pleasant change, then, that Andromeda eschews a militaristic outlook. Even though the Pathfinders are military trained, they’re no longer part of an army; their skills now used to protect the colonists. Though there is a big fight against the Kett, the main drive of the Initiative is to establish a home in the strange Andromeda Galaxy. As much as you’re fighting Kett, defeating them is the goal than is exploring the galaxy and terraforming planets to support life.

A lot of big operatic science fiction tends to revolve around, well, war. Halo and Gears of War are both Thames that revolve around war — but in space! This is not a criticism; setting these stories in space frees them from a measure of baggage. One reason that Halo’s narrative works is that its existential fight is against a genocidal alien alliance so that militaristic rah rah is less rooted in xenophobia (see: most Call of Duty games and other ‘realistic’ militaristic shooters). All the same, when everything is skewed one way, it’s pleasant to see a narrative that goes in another direction.

It’s less an issue of one necessarily being better than another, and more the need to have different narratives. I love Star Wars, but I enjoy watching Star Trek because it’s a fun change to see a group of characters trying to solve the Problem of the Week (but in space!) rather than fighting an out-and-out war. Though the Trek has its Admirals and Captains, Starfleet isn’t a military organization so much as one that’s about exploration. Generals and such need not apply.

All this to say, there’s an enjoyable relief when it comes to these different narratives. For Andromeda to feature a space explorer trying to overcome the challenges of the galaxy and doing stuff instead of being the hardcore military commander is a nice change — one that you don’t really see much in video games. Such a shame that the game itself is so lackluster.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Ahistoricism

I went into The Favourite like I do with many movies: knowing very little and having seen maybe a part of a trailer. I knew it was a period piece (duh) and there was a Queen in it (also: duh). Anyway, after watching the movie I read up on it on Wikipedia and found, to my immense surprise, that it was somewhat based on actual historical fact. It makes sense enough that I thought this movie was fabricated wholesale: there’s a Queen in power, nobles are vying for power, and England is at war with France; it’s the proverbial typical Tuesday. And yet, Queen Anne actually did have a pair of rival handmaidens, and many of the characters had their own Wikipedia articles detailing their real-life stories.

It was all quite fascinating, but, ultimately, also quite irrelevant.

Unlike many historical dramas dealing with heads of state, The Favourite is not terribly concerned with the major political movements of the time. Rather the focus is on Anne and the machinations of Abigail and Sarah that take place behind the scenes. There is some influence on the larger political landscape, but we see very little of life beyond the lush estate the action transpires in. Court life is ruthlessly savaged in this satire, the politicians reduced to overdressed men slathered with makeup in foppish wigs racing ducks.

Now, there is some criticism of The Favourite for playing fast and loose with history. Anne’s husband was still alive at the time all this drama went down, and the idea of there being lesbian liaisons between the Queen and her ladies-in-waiting is dismissed by some historians as nothing more than contemporary slander by the opposition. Despite being about real people and set against real events, The Favourite is an out and out lie.

Which is great, since the movie doesn’t purport to be anything but. There’s no fancy title card letting us know what century we’re in, there’s no real reference to the actual geopolitical situation at the time (let’s face it, England and France are at war in basically every period piece, and there’s always an opposition party). All the temporal trappings of the movie serve its central story and all the schemings therein.

The Favourite’s detachment from historical fact is what makes it all the more scathing. Since the exact time-period is indeterminate to the layperson (ie: me), I’m not gonna get caught up wondering about the exact details about the time and can instead happily get lost in the film. The world of The Favourite is the world the filmmakers want to use to tell their story. It is a world where men are useless and relegated to the background while the women with their plots and aspirations are far more important. We don’t need to care too much how accurate to the contemporary social mores it is, the way things happen is how they happen. It’s fantasy.

That’s the real pleasure of period pieces: they feel like another world with another set of rules and another life that’s very much not that of 2019. There’s a different set of rules, one that’s foreign yet familiar. Though the Queen may rule in The Favourite, some words in her ear from Abigail or Sarah can sway her mind. We go along with it because it makes enough sense not to break our suspicion of disbelief. Consider how most Westerns play fast and loose with reality, or the ersatz 80s-ness of Metal Gear Solid V; it doesn’t matter how accurate things are, so long as they feel real.

And so, despite its lack of historical accuracy, The Favourite really works so well because its world feels right and its characters real. For Anne, Abigail, and Sarah the world is deathly serious, and we buy in and get to enjoy the hijinks as they unfold.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Joy of Exploring

I continue to be endlessly fascinated by Breath of The Wild’s open world. Since the last time I talked about the game I’ve taken on one more Divine Beast, but I still spend so much of my time exploring Hyrule and trying to find everything.

Which of course makes me wonder why I find this wandering so satisfying. I have a completionist streak in me, a part of me that wants to finish everything. Get all the dang feathers in Assassin’s Creed II, unlock every character in LEGO Avengers, get the Platinum Trophy in Burnout Paradise. Open world games are thus a scary beast for me; sure, it’s fun to explore and stuff, but I also want to Do All The Things. I’m terrified of missing something, of there being some little nugget of fun that I glossed over.

In many ways, I’m very grateful for the map and its icons in Spider-Man. One glance and I know if there’s still stuff to do in any given neighborhood, I know if I’m missing anything. There’s a bit of a freeing feeling when you have that reassurance that you’ll be able to get to it later and there’s no harm in running up the Empire State Building again. Since it’s so clear what I ‘have’ to do in the game, the potential shenanigans are too.

Conversely, Breath of The Wild is absolutely taciturn with its goals. Sure, there’s a quest tracker, but beyond that you’re in the wind. The map is barebones, displaying only region names and the occasional marker for towns once you discover them. Those shrines and Korok scattered everywhere? Yeah, they’re only added after you find them. Massive monsters, treasure, and all those other little secrets will forever remain unmarked, unless you manually add a note to the map.

Hyrule is yours to explore, there’s very little in the way of guides to where things are or even how many of something there is (how many Shrines are there? I haven’t a darn clue). It’s kinda terrifying, there’s So Much to this world, and no way to know how much there is — unless I break out a guide or something.

Yet I’ve made peace with knowing that I might not be able to find Every Last Thing. Wandering Hyrule and discovering its secrets is fun enough in and of itself, plus there’s usually one of those Koroks hiding on the top of that really-hard-to-reach pillar. In Breath of The Wild I’m enjoying the journey.

Maybe this is because the Switch doesn’t have Trophies, and I know that it won’t make a difference if I’m missing one or two shrines in the run of it. I don’t have the pressure of a checklist of things to do while I play. Now, I do like Trophies; I like challenges to do on the side as I play the game. But the lack of them in Wild means I can really do whatever I want and not have some background concern that I’m not doing everything as it should be.

There’s also not really too much of an overbearing narrative in Breath of The Wild. Sure, there is the whole assemble the Divine Beasts and fight Ganon thing; but there’s little pressure beyond that. Link doesn’t say to himself “Hm, I oughta get to saving Hyrule.” In practice, doing whatever you want may as well be the story as it happens, and it’s so much better for that.

Hyrule is a world for you, as Link, to explore as you please. It’s baked into its DNA in a way that no number of expertly crafted side quests could ever muster.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized