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.

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