Earlier this week, BioWare pulled back the curtain just a little bit further on Mass Effect: Andromeda. The new entry in the series takes place 600 years after the original trilogy, wherein humans and aliens sent Arks full of refugees to the Andromeda Galaxy before Shepard’s eventual revival in the second game. Players will take on the role of a human named Ryder as they try to find a new home in the galaxy, which quickly doesn’t go in their favor. As cool of a setup as that is and how awesome the game looks, I also can’t help but wonder why there isn’t the chance to play an alien this time around.
The original Mass Effect trilogy centered on the human Shepard because it was about our race’s rise to the top after being relegated as the underdogs. No one on the Council was on our side, and any attempts from Shepard or Udina to get assistance was met with mock concern. Humans were always the ones in the most danger from the Reaper threat; Shepard’s actions led to countless humans getting snatched up to power a new Reaper, and stopping that monstrosity made Earth the starting point for a Reaper invasion that lasted months.
All of that was thematically appropriate, but Mass Effect: Andromeda is going for something broader — this galaxy is a new starting point for all races. BioWare says the theme of the game is “stranger in a strange land,” and in the most recent trailer, Ryder states, “we’re the aliens now.” But playing as a human is about as far from a stranger as you can get, especially in terms of science fiction. Sci-fi tropes frame humans as the most special of the alien races — the original trilogy has proven this, as did Halo in its later sequels, and Final Fantasy VII. By now, the premise is dry.
Andromeda’s recent trailer seems to indicate that we’re in for another round of this; at the end, our apparent villain for the game grabs Ryder’s throat and utters: “Now I know what makes you special.”
As prominent as aliens are in science fiction, there aren’t a lot of games where you get to play as one that’s sentient. There are games that portray them as hyperintelligent beings, like XCOM, but you rarely end up in the more grounded position other games try to place on you. Halo 2 and 3 allowed players to slip into the role of the Arbiter, an Elite whose promotion to warrior made him a glorified one-man suicide squad for the Prophets. It was a clever swerve on Bungie’s part that ended with him saving the galaxy and reclaiming that title for his own species. And of course, there’s the Ratchet & Clank franchise, where Ratchet’s Lombax heritage comes heavily into play in the Future trilogy, revealing that the cat-like species were some of the greatest engineers to exist in that galaxy. Both games use their alien protagonists to make you feel like an outlier from the rest of the galaxy, with the Arbiter’s low standing among the Covenant being the reason he gets assigned the most dangerous tasks, and Ratchet’s adventurers now laced with the tragedy of him being the last of his kind in his dimension.
BioWare excels at creating interesting universes full of deep lore and authentic characters, so it isn’t like playing aliens (or rather, what we view as aliens) in Mass Effect: Andromeda would be impossible. Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer let players choose from 10 races, and they all played and moved roughly the same, barring minor details like some races being unable to combat roll. Their Dragon Age games, barring the second, offers a range of racial experiences. With Inquisition, players got the opportunity to face racism in a high society ball, where every move they took was scrutinized. If you weren’t a Human Rogue or Warrior, there was a very good chance that mission could end with the Inquisitor being thrown out.
BioWare games have always had racism and classism as one of the core tenants of their writing, and while there’s no doubt that Mass Effect: Andromeda will explore this to some degree, going through the game as a human is about the weakest way to explore that. All the races in for this new venture are aliens in the most technical sense, and as much as the Codex and non-human squad members have talked about their races at length to players, we still don’t really know how it feels to play as them in a single player space. What does this new galaxy mean for a Turian with no facial markings? If you’re a Krogan and the standard BioWare romance comes into play, would you try and start a family on a world safe from the genophage? Salarians are well known for their love of research and experimentation, what does alien technology from our villains in Andromeda mean for them? These are things that BioWare could present in first person, especially given that players have attached to non-human squadmates like Garrus and Tali the most across all three games.
How Mass Effect: Andromeda shakes out will be anyone’s guess until it releases next Spring, but if this new entry does turn out to be another case of putting humans at the forefront again, it’ll be a bit of a disappointment. With a huge time skip and a series of new worlds and characters at our disposal, it’d be nice if we got a new perspective into science fiction. Humans are cool and all, but we don’t need any more special snowflakes.