Worlds Beyond Tomorrow Part 2: The future of mankind in Mass Effect Andromeda

Welcome to Part 2 of Chris Underwood’s Worlds Beyond Tomorrow. This time around he ventures to a different galaxy in order to explore the world(s) that Bioware created …

Please note that the following contains spoilers for Mass Effect Andromeda

If history does indeed repeat itself first as tragedy, second as farce, then suffice to say that Mass Effect: Andromeda definitely qualifies for the second category. 

Not because of the technical and gameplay issues that rightfully provoked reactions which ranged from mild disappointment to baffled mockery, but due to the fact that it portrays many of the same sociological foibles that Horizon Zero Dawn’s narrative glossed over in an equally tolerant light.

The game opens with humanity and its allies having completed an unprecedented exodus across the vastness of the intergalactic void and arriving in the Andromeda galaxy. Tens of thousands of people kept in cryogenic suspension for 600 years to give civilisation a new beginning in a new galaxy, removed in time and space from the conflicts and failings of life as we know it…and what’s the first major event that involves your character (either Sarah or Scott Ryder)? Your father dies and you’re promoted to take his place. Bioware had the chance to show gamers a vision of the future that was completely disconnected from established organisational hierarchies, but from the word go we’re presented with a journey which because of this one choice becomes one small step for man, one giant leap for nepotism.

No matter how hard I tried, that one design decision kept coming back to me throughout my playthrough and served to underscore, perhaps taint my impression of the rest of the game. Everything else about it is perfectly serviceable. Environmental traversal and combat mechanics are slicker than they have ever been in a Mass Effect game, the music is tolerable throughout but only really becomes thematically interesting or appropriate towards the last half hour or so, and although the primary story arc is reminiscent of the golden age of sci-fi pulp paperbacks the quality of the writing is worthy of a group of sleep deprived creative writing undergraduate students.

The game’s primary aesthetic incorporates many of the standard elements of a fictional future of the utopian type where our technical skill and industrial prowess have allowed mankind to do away with many of the economic woes that today plague the lives of billions, except those problems are still abundantly present in this particular future. Instead of doing away with the often arbitrary and completely exploitative monetary economy that sees a few living in palaces whilst the rest of us squabble over scraps (relatively speaking), the members of the Andromeda Initiative immediately start charging each other for basic goods, fighting amongst themselves for resources, and bickering over who is in charge. The result is the virtually instantaneous division of the burgeoning community into the haves and have-nots. This makes a certain kind of sense when you consider the inherently competitive, at times even combative, nature of currency-based economics, but it also paints a very grim picture of how Bioware’s current crop of writers view mankind. It also raises the question of exactly why the Initiative would be so deliberately regressive when its goal is to build a better future.

The widely accepted default position of all modern societies is that the current state of affairs is the best possible outcome and that all hope for manmade change is a dangerous fantasy (a.k.a communism). The entrenched resignation inherent to this perspective is an overarching excuse for what all of us allow to continue every single day: the constant abuse of governmental power and influence, the invasion in the name of “democracy” of countries that frankly can’t really defend themselves, and the various forms of systemic class, race, and gender bias that affect even the simplest of everyday situations. The fact that Bioware’s writing staff, lead by Cathleen Rootsaert, chose to wholesale copy-paste the obviously flawed social systems that exist today into the story as a foundation for life in an entirely different galaxy speaks volumes about a possible paucity of imagination. Although it is interesting to note that during character creation the player is given the option of customising history, the only option involved is selecting the gender of Commander Shepard from the previous trilogy. So apparently the only thing about the old world which has been consigned to the past is traditional gender. That’s a nice nod to the contemporary fashion for rubbishing social mores about that one particular issue, but beyond that, it doesn’t really have much relevance. Granted, the inclusion of such overtly defunct societal conditions could be considered as a veiled commentary on the failings of these systems as most of the optional/side missions in the game involve finding resolutions to problems caused by greed, ambition and selfishness. Most of those solutions involve shooting things at some point, but after all it is an action adventure RPG based on gunplay so that’s essentially unavoidable. All evidence made available in the game through missions that deal with a whole spectrum of issues including immigration and total freedom versus the rule of law, points to the failure of conventional wisdom in this apparently great endeavour, and that such old-fashioned notions ultimately result in needless provocation and detrimental consequences not just to the individual but also society as a whole.

Such conventional wisdom is always challenged, and that challenge is often presented in the form of the antagonists. The Kett, a militaristic race of techno-religious zealots bent on the forced integration or “exaltation”, in their terminology, of other races via genetic splicing (think of The Borg but with test tubes instead of nanoprobe tubules), take on this role in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Well, at least they attempt to. For all the bluster of their philosophy and the overt aggression with which they seek to spread it, they never really come across as compelling or convincing foes. They certainly are destructive and work wonderfully as generic enemies to be unceremoniously dispatched with pyrotechnic aplomb but that’s about it. Beyond their demonstrably violent actions and cartoonish villainy they have no real impact. This is not a problem unique to this game, in fact it’s a problem that spans the entire genre across multiple formats (consider Kylo Ren from The Force Awakens). What’s caused this?

One potential answer could be that there are no genuine enemies left in the real world, no true opposition to global capitalist neo-liberalism. In their place, we have only a series of ideologically constructed foes who serve no other purpose than to perpetuate the economic and social influence of those with vested interests in maintaining the post Cold War status quo. For the past couple of generations, there hasn’t been any actual opposition to the pan-global ubiquity of western ideals, as such the majority of people writing these stories can’t even conceive of a genuine threat because they’ve never known one. The closest we’ve come in games to an actual enemy in recent years is the Helghast from the Killzone series: they worked so well as villains because they had a clearly defined purpose for fighting. They were diametrically opposed to the ISA along with the same political and social lines that divided the world for much of the 20th century. Other “big bads” in the majority of games are motivated purely by personal reasons, and that’s why they don’t work as convincing enemies. Just because something thinks differently and disagrees with you does not make them evil, a fact that is often lost on in the age of social media where the nuanced political debate is often reduced to the click of a “like button.”

Towards the end of Mass Effect: Andromeda, Ryder says about Meridian, the Kett Archon’s ultimate weapon for the domination of the Helius Cluster, that it’s “a gateway to everything we’ve been chasing.” Which may seem like a fairly innocuous comment about the specific goal of the Andromeda mission and the colonists’ hope for the establishment of a new society, but it also lumbers the story and its characters with a powerful sense of dependence. The settlers are looking to powers beyond their understanding to make everything better, just as the Kett do by integrating the genetic material into their own in order to advance their species. This reliance on powers beyond excuses the perpetuation of the order of things and renders the desire to make a better world as something not for us but rather for beings that exist or existed on a higher plane than ourselves, in this case, the Remnant. It’s not through our own efforts that things change; only those who are higher than us in life and station truly control how events unfold. A deeply troubling message, shared by Horizon Zero Dawn, to send in an age where inequality is increasing on all fronts and in all countries. Both games present the advanced technology that their characters become dependent on using much the same geometric, insectoid stylistic elements that on the one hand serve to create the sense of mystery and awe that the best of these stories all attempt to instil in their audience and is indicative of that shared concept of the future. On the other hand, it could be seen as an instinctive fear of the unknown that proves Clarke’s third law that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. This fear is again suggestive of a very conservative mindset that underlines liberal ideas presented elsewhere throughout these kinds of stories.

It’s not all bad though. Where Mass Effect: Andromeda does succeed in presenting a convincing idea of the future is in the exploration of a new frontier. As the Ryder siblings and the Initiative begin to open up that frontier, they generally do so in the spirit of co-operation and friendship. The hope being that humanity and its allies can build a better future far from the established formalities of life back home. A radical notion that prioritises the common good over the pursuit of selfish gain, but it’s a plan that may never come to fruition. As history has shown the best of intentions are not enough to create a decent society. Imperial Britain, the Soviet Union, and modern America more than demonstrate that. At the core of these two games, and most other narratives of this type is hope. Hope that things not only can be better, but they indeed will be better.

The above image of the Pathfinder set against a tapestry of stars with their worldly self obscured entirely by a chrysallis of armour and a visor reflecting the coiling fire of Andromeda’s outstretched spiral arms is emblematic of the spirit behind all of science fiction. With their individual identity essentially replaced by a mask of ever-changing light the image of the character becomes a metaphor for the human spirit and our will to endure against all odds, to think, to hope and to dream of not just being better in ourselves but as a whole, as a species. For all the inconsistencies than can be said to exist in these games, and in this type of narrative, we continue to cling to this notion of hope because especially in these dark times, hope is all we really have. It helps us overcome, or at least endure, the cognitive dissonance between reality as we know it and reality as we know it should be. As Aloy and the Ryder’s know all too well from their experiences, you cannot change the past, but you can change the future and you can live the dream. Sadly, for all of us at least, it is a dream that may never come true.