Mass Effect: Andromeda was a fantastic game and I’ll die on that hill. It had problems (in the beginning) but there was enough of it that the problems were a relatively small percentage of the game as a whole. I had a great time playing and it set up a world that could have been expanded in so many directions and the combat was the best of any Mass Effect game, hands down. Even if any of that had been less solid, the loyalty missions alone were worth the price of the game, and just like the original trilogy, I’ve gone back to replay some of those missions again and again.
What I remember most, though, was right at the beginning, shortly after character creation, seeing Alex Ryder for the first time. There’s a dramatic turning around, and a lingering shot on the N7 insignia, when you first meet your dad, because he’s kind of a big deal, but for me all that drama was leading up to the reveal that, holy shit, my dad looks like me.
All my characters are Asian. This is a part of my ongoing journey to single-handedly insert Asian characters into fantasy and science fiction narratives. Even in the worlds without an Asia, I specifically make my characters East or Southeast Asian, at least in appearance. I want people that look like me in the stories that I’m interested in. And usually I’m the only one — there’s plenty of games that you can play all the way through and see no Asian people (some with no people of color at all, others with what is clearly all white people with various skin tones slapped on) — or the only other Asian characters are the villains, another fun trope that people who design games seem to love.
Bioware has a history of having my back with this (relatively speaking). Its character customization has always let me make characters that look even approximately like me. And I remember the first time I played Dragon Age: Origins and I came across an East Asian NPC (well, Orlesian, but you know) and she was probably pretty weirded out when I just stood there and stared, because I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I was so excited to see her, because it meant that there was a studio that was really thinking about representation, and thought it was important to include people who looked like me.
But it didn’t really take it far enough. I played through every origin in Dragon Age: Origins, and all the ones that included my family made it pretty clear that my character had been adopted. I especially remember playing the Cousland origin and going to find my mother, and wishing that I could be looking for family members that looked like me.
That was part of why I was excited that I got to design my twin in Andromeda. I figured it was a smart choice on the part of the developers; twins who appear to be of different races do happen, as the internet loves to remind us, but it would seem suspicious if we looked nothing alike, as is wont to happen when I design characters with siblings. I made Scott Asian, to match my Asian Sarah (I named her Lace, not realizing that there were voiced lines that said her name and that if you change it those voiced lines are replaced with awkward lines that make it sound like your love interest can’t quite remember your name). And then I went to meet my dad.
And that dramatic reveal when my dad turned out to be Asian floored me. That’s not a case of exaggeration or overuse of italics; I was stunned. I thought at first that Alex Ryder was just Asian; that for the first time in history someone had designed a PC’s family member and decided not to make them white. He looked like me and he looked like my brother, and it was so easy to see our relationship played out on the screen with no cognitive dissonance and no need for me to add, inside my head, the elaborate adoption backstory that I’ve had to give the rest of my characters with family members. I felt seen.
I googled it because I was so surprised and learned that Alex’s face is generated based on Scott and Sarah’s faces. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t thought of it, or more importantly that I hadn’t seen it before. It makes so much sense; it ensures that your players get the chance to see other people that look like them, and for a lot of people of color you just don’t see that! Not ever!
It was a small moment but I still think about it. It’s one of the first times that I’ve really seen myself represented — not just that I was able to make an East Asian character, but that the game acknowledged it. Even if the rest of the game had been disappointing, I would still reflect on it fondly because of that moment. And it means that Bioware was thinking during its design process, thinking about every person potentially playing their game. Including me!
It’s been about two years and I’m still thinking about this. That’s the power of representation. But I’m also thinking about it because I compare it to all the games that I play that don’t offer me that opportunity, with or without character customization. And I think about how I, as a content creator, can do similar things to make people feel seen in their media. Because it meant a lot to me.