Over the last few weeks there’s been a hubbub over the possibility of Mass Effect: Andromeda being about human colonizers of the Andromeda galaxy. Some people think that it would be interesting to be the invading force and others think that this might be the first step down a dark moral road. Personally, I hope that it is both.
Mass Effect: Andromeda wouldn’t be the first game to explore “xeno-colonialism.” Strangely, to boldly go to the stars and plant one’s flag there is not to boldly go where no one has never gone before.
For example, Civilization: Beyond Earth tells you that you are the last, best hope for humanity to survive and the only way to do so is to essentially take over an alien world. How you accomplish this takes a few different forms. You can learn about xenobiology and merge with the alien lifeforms to become something new or you can deny all others and dogmatically retain your humanity. Civ: BE spends almost zero time moralizing about whether it is better to adapt to your surroundings or bend them to your iron will. Also take into account that Civ games generally spend no time moralizing about how you construct your empire and obtain victory.
At the center of this tension is that one of the middle Xs in 4X games stands for eXploit. Beyond Earth is very open about the fact in order for humanity to survive (because Earth is dying) it needs to take drastic measures. In the mythos of Civ one might say that the time for moralizing is over and the time for survival has begun, native lifeforms be damned.
But Mass Effect has never been about exploiting resources or expansion, it’s a series about reacting to difficult situations with difficult choices. By having the humans venture out into the unknown Bioware may be presenting players with an interesting choice, what kind of explorer will they be? Will they follow in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong (the smart, straight laced type with a need for speed), Roald Amundsen (the type who is “called” to explore), Gertrude Bell (the scholar/trailblazer/spy/diplomat), or Hernan Cortes (the shrewd, win at all costs traitor who would topple an empire for gold and glory)? Those are certainly not the only archetypes and gross simplifications but that’s the point. Instead of being “simply” anything it would be powerful for Bioware to ask us carve our own path and be judged by the legacy we lead.
A game like this would hem much closer to realization of what Gene Roddenberry would see as exactly the point of Star Trek’s “Five Year Mission”. The original Star Trek was not just about exploring new worlds, but about using those worlds as a gateway to discussing difficult political, moral, and ethical questions. I’m a firm believer that games (or shows and movies) should not fear tough, moral questions. They should only fear handling them haphazardly. If Mass Effect: Andromeda is going to put us in the boots of human explorer/colonizer/flag planter it better to do so in a way that lets us explore the difficult and challenging questions that are intrinsically ties up in seeing, coveting, and taking. That’s the nuanced, complicated, action-filled Mass Effect game that we deserve.
Author’s note: an earlier version of this article did not call out Hernan Cortes for being a traitorous asshole.