Video games are here (they can be queer) and we need to get used to them making a cultural impact through interactive storytelling. I had played Sid Meier’s Civilization series all throughout my undergrad years, as any respectable International Relations student would, but it wasn’t until my 20’s that a roommate suggested I use their Xbox for a role-playing game.
So let me introduce you to the game that got me hooked and talk a little a bit about the way the latest installment is confronting postcolonialism through story development and casting.
The Mass Effect Trilogy Had A… Mass Effect
The original Mass Effect series was a huge critical and commercial success in the gaming industry. Made by the Canadian company Bioware, the third and final installment of the trilogy in 2012 had approximately 50% of it’s sales are in North America and 40% in Europe. Publisher Electronic Arts estimated that Mass Effect 3 sales were upward of $200 million in that same year.
As a role-playing game, story and characters are the main attraction of the game. The third-person combat is still important, but if the plot doesn’t resonate with the audience then most of the fun of combat vanishes. The story is largely affected by the player’s decisions in-game and is so integral to the Mass Effect experience that players became infuriated when they thought all their decisions had become nullified by the ending.
Bioware puts a lot of effort into character development and any visit into the fandom will reveal just how much audiences love them. The producers were able to attract highly visible talent like Martin Sheen, Freddie Prinze Jr.. Seth Green, Carrie Anne Moss, and Tricia Helfer and Michael Hogan of Battlestar Galactica fame to make characters even more lovable.
If you’re interested in the impact of gender, race, and sexual representation in the Mass Effect series there’s also plenty to mine. Particularly in the sex department. There is celebration and criticism aplenty. You might even want to check out my investigation of alien sex in fiction media here.
Beyond those messages of representation, however, let me point out that the big moral of the Mass Effect trilogy is that cooperation between different species is good. Specifically, cooperation that is embodied in an intergovernmental organization. Space United Nations. Space European Union. A clever Vice piece took the plot of Mass Effect and transposed it into the Brexit debate with a Remain slant.
Mass Effect: Andromeda, Galactic Civilization Reboot
For all the good bits about being governed by a multi-species galactic government, the Milky Way was far from perfect. There were enough discontents present to start pining for a whole new galaxy. In Mass Effect: Andromeda you play a “Pathfinder”, a job that mixes exploration and colonial affairs. Sara/Scott Ryder was put into cryo-sleep between games one and two and traveled through dark space for 600 years to reach the Andromeda galaxy. Whatever happened in the Milky Way, its gone and totally irrelevant to your new story.
The Andromeda Initiative is a private organization that set out to colonize a number of “golden worlds” in the Heleus cluster. The developers of the Initiative knew that they would likely come across new alien species in Heleus, and so in the beginning of the game you’re given a bit of background on protocols for First Contact. There is one alien species that will be hostile to you, a group of invaders called kett, and another native species that is not hostile but definitely skeptical, the angara.
The angara live on a number of planets in the Heleus cluster but a generations long disastrous war with the kett and a natural disaster have destroyed their infrastructure and most of what they knew about their history. They are vulnerable, but you and your team from the Milky Way are not. Little details about first contact with natives in North America are dropped in side conversations where characters say that “this time will be different”.
And so you are presented with a series of choices throughout the game to see if you really will be different. Every action you take in fighting the kett and clearing the natural disaster, both threaten all of you equally, you must negotiate power with the angara. You can use them as serfs for your outposts and cannon fodder for your war, or you can make them equal partners in rebuilding both civilizations anew.
Africa: A Galaxy Far, Far Away
Even more curious are accents the creative directors chose to give the angara: products of British colonialism. North American accents are of course also a product of British colonialism, and everyone is speaking English, but they are largely the default in this game. British accents sometimes make an appearance and at least one alien race speaks universally with a created accent that sounds a little Slavic. However the angara are a mix of Australian, New Zealand, South African, and other African accents. The voice actor for your angaran squadmate, Nyasha Hatendi as Jaal, is British-American actor of Zimbabwean descent. Hatendi speaks normally with a British accent, but for Andromeda he (or the directors, or even both) chose an African accent. Perusing the names of other voice actors listed in the game, we see a number of other African names, though no specification on whether or not they played both angara or Milky Way species. You can take a look at the principal voice actors and their characters here.
This is the second time Bioware has included an African accent in their representation of an alien. The first was with the bonus character of Javik in Mass Effect 3. That voice actor, Ike Amadi (whose exact African ancestry I am unable to determine) speaks normally with an American accent but also put on an African accent to play an ancient “vengeful warrior”. I bristled a little bit at first, but then relaxed at the special sort of irony of Javik derisively referring to all the other species as “primitives”.
If somebody on the creative team put that in on purpose, then perhaps they also put a key exchange between Jaal and a curious human in there too. “We are not mystical others,” Jaal tells a (black) human Liam in a side conversation. It is a common thread in all their conversations, with Jaal trying to convince Liam that the angara are pretty much just like every other sentient species in the universe: diverse and often contradictory. Somebody on the team, perhaps even Nyasha Hatendi himself, had maybe been reading some Edward Said and/or Franz Fanon and it accidentally on purpose seeped in.
Although there is something to be said about constantly presenting African accents as exclusively alien. Certainly they give a Euro-American audience the connotation that this species is from far, far away. But does it reinforce the idea that Africans are “others”? Are Africans themselves not present in a spacefaring human society?
Shut Up And Take My Money
Andromeda, like any cultural product intended for the masses, is unlikely to go to deep into these issues. It has to stay simple in order to be understood by the widest possible audiences. But it seems clear that Bioware as a company wants to appeal to progressive values and critical race theorists, and that I think is a positive direction for media in a capitalist society.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is the first installment into what we can assume will be a multi-part story. The game debuted in March 2017 and Bioware is currently working on downloadable content (DLC) that will add new mini-adventures to the current game. Let’s keep an eye on what happens.