Like many fanbases, the Bioware fanbase/playerbase is a trash fire at any given time. Said fanbase didn’t even let Mass Effect: Andromeda get off the ground before lambasting it for various graphical inadequacies and stilted line delivery. However, while there do exist some graphical glitches, weird bugs, and a disappointing character creator, ME: A is not that bad. Since I’m not even halfway through the game yet (no spoilers!) this isn’t going to be a full review, but rather a look at a troubling reaction by Mass Effect’s audience. After already being labeled as “SJW propaganda” by people who loathe anything that looks like a diverse cast, it’s absolutely no surprise that there’s such negativity surrounding a woman in charge; even less surprising when that woman is Black. While there’s absolutely fault on the fanbase for the unfair treatment surrounding her, in what I’ve seen and experienced I can only come up with one conclusion: Bioware set up Sloane Kelly to fail.
Spoilers beneath the cut.
“Fail” can mean many things in this instance: fail at being a good leader, fail at being intimidating, fail at capturing the audience’s trust and appreciation, fail at showing a well-rounded character—the list goes on. In this case, though, I mean specifically that Sloane was set up to fail in terms of audience opinion. ME: A has the player, Ryder, wake up from a 600-year cryogenic sleep, traveling from the Milky Way to Andromeda. The instant Ryder and their crew arrive on the dysfunctional Nexus—the hub where the priority figures from the Milky Way galaxy have already awakened and are trying to build a new society—Sloane is verbally smeared by just about everyone important you speak with. Previously working as head of Nexus security, Sloane switched sides when people began to rebel against the Nexus administration, eventually ending up exiled from the Nexus alongside many others. The rebellion continues to be a sore spot, especially with Director Tann, the head administrator and de facto face of the Nexus. While the narrative constantly proves Tann to be a very biased source on just about everything, his repeated claims about Sloane being a disgusting outlaw and a terrible person are mostly corroborated by everyone else Ryder runs into, with a side of “but I did feel kind of bad for the rebels” from the more “level-headed” folks.
During Ryder’s travels, they finally arrive at Kadara Port: the heart of the rebel populace. Kadara is now being run by Sloane, and it’s basically like the mob, cranked up to 11: protection rackets, drugs, exiles being further exiled if they don’t pay their cut to Sloane, and so on. Sloane does nothing to show herself as a “good” ally either—rather than embracing Ryder or acting willing to make a deal, she doesn’t mince words and and aggressively keeps just about everyone at arm’s length. Though she and her gang, the Outcasts, run Kadara Port with an iron fist, her power is being questioned by a newly formed gang, the Collective. At the end of the Kadara Port “chapter”, Ryder is forced to make a decision to either save Sloane from being killed unfairly during what was supposed to be a one-on-one duel, or to let her die and allow the Collective’s leader to take over Kadara.
The choice itself isn’t the problem—it’s one of the most compelling choices Ryder is forced to make—it’s how it’s presented. Ryder also gets to spend time with the leader of the Collective, Reyes Vidal. Many people have compared Reyes to a more suave Han Solo, and I can’t argue with that assessment. From the get-go Reyes is presented as a charming smuggler who wants to help Kadara Port, or at least wants to stop people from getting murdered in the middle of the street. Throughout Ryder’s time on Kadara, they and Reyes are in frequent communication, though Ryder is not yet aware that Reyes is the Collective’s leader. In small snippets of dialogue, the Collective is presented as potentially just as bad as the Outcasts (just sneakier about their bad deeds), but it’s nowhere near equal. By the point Ryder gets to the choice, it ends up being between “the woman who has been ruling Kadara and has been shown as capable of protecting people, but is really mean and I’ve been trained to mistrust her despite not knowing her” and “my cool bro who shared a drink with me and kind of lied about who he was”. I love Reyes as a character, but Ryder has already heard all of Sloane’s dirty laundry aired out without hearing anything to make her sympathetic: in this way, the choice feels extremely stilted.
What makes this even worse is that there is media to round out Sloane’s character, but it’s not in-game. Bioware has a real problem of forcing plot points into their outside media, and then not giving players who haven’t read those outside materials the knowledge within. The novel Mass Effect: Nexus Uprising explores everything Sloane went through before being forced off the Nexus. Essentially, Sloane was one of the first taken out of cryogenic stasis. However, she wasn’t allowed to take care of her job without the constant interference of Tann and one of the other political figureheads on the ship. With the administration doing things behind her back and not listening to what she had to say, her anger and frustration rose alongside a portion of the Nexus populace. This certainly doesn’t excuse the brutality with which she runs Kadara Port, but this is the side of the story we don’t get in-game. We can sympathize insofar as knowing that Tann sucks and the basic knowledge that all conflicts have two sides, but that doesn’t leave Ryder or the player with much of anything. And while that may be part of the point of the choice narratively, it would have been nice to have more of Sloane’s perspective or more of a chance to hang out with Sloane like Reyes.
This is frustrating enough, but leave it to the fandom to make it shittier.
A frightening portion of fandom has narrowed this conflict down to “uppity bitch vs my bro”. Much of this is plain misogyny—because how dare a woman not worship the ground you walk on and hold autonomous power—but as to be expected, there’s also a race element to this. While Reyes, the immediate threat, is not a white man (although a character who seems to embody the Dashing Hispanic trope is something to discuss in its own right) the closest comparison to Sloane we have is Aria from the earlier Mass Effect games. Aria runs the seedy respite of Omega and rules it with as much of an iron fist as Sloane does Kadara Port. Though Aria herself is asari, a species that seems devoid of racial issues, Aria’s face model is clearly white. When placed next to the fandom consensus that Aria’s a complex and badass character, this seems to be another case of white women being allowed autonomy and power that Black women are denied or lambasted for having. These racial issues also extend to Bioware’s own writing. Andromeda and Dragon Age: Inquisition weren’t written by the same team, but they carry some of the same underlying issues. In Inquisition, the Inquisitor’s only Black party member, the mage Vivienne, was implicitly linked to being “villainous” throughout the entire game. On the surface level, she seemed to support the Templars and the Circle—both shown to be pretty harmful and corrupt—and she wasn’t as immediately friendly or open as many of the other party members. Her personal quest, “Bring Me the Heart of Snow White”, even harkens to Disney villany. Both Vivienne and Sloane, Black women (even voiced by the same voice actress, Indira Varma), are never really allowed a chance to be shown in a good light, unlike what feels like all the other characters around them.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is only “SJW propaganda” in that its cast really is diverse in terms of sexuality and race. However, some of this diversity is difficult to laud when certain characters, especially Black women, are pitted against a bad situation with unfair odds. Sloane is absolutely allowed to be a character who does terrible things and who has been hardened by her experiences enough that she is prickly to any upstart who comes by stirring things up. Yet when the narrative we get in-game doesn’t give her a chance to be anything but some sort of raider boogeyman while at the same time lifting up her opposition, it becomes troubling. I hope as I move further on in Andromeda that I’m given more background on Sloane, especially from her own mouth. I don’t want her to become “a villain I was forced to side with because reasons”; I want the game narrative to finally show her as the complex character she is. I want her to finally be given the chance to not “fail”.