As someone who isn’t very religious and who’s had very few positive interactions with religion, I always get a little bit worried when it takes a significant role in the media I consume. That same worry filled me in Mass Effect: Andromeda when I began speaking with one of my crewmates, namely the science officer aboard the Tempest, Dr. Suvi Anwar. As I continued interacting with her, I was pleased to find that her character wasn’t limited to being “the religious one”, and that she found joy in the fact that she and my Ryder both had differing opinions on spirituality and the prevalence of religion—a mindset that is often sadly lacking in real life. I left my first Andromeda experience feeling like Bioware really stepped up the nuance in their conversations concerning religion and spirituality, but as the game’s plot twists ruminated in my mind, I came to the conclusion that Bioware and their stories still have a huge problem with avoiding exploring and accepting other religions outside of the Christianity “norm”.
Spoilers for Mass Effect: Andromeda and Dragon Age: Inquisition beneath the cut.
Suvi is what I would call an idealized religious person. There are people like her in real life of course (though woefully not as common as one would hope), but in a game world she’s the type to express her beliefs and, as long as you aren’t a total dickbag to her, accept that you either believe the same as her or believe differently than her, and leave it at that. She’s not in the business of proselytizing—she’s just chill. In a fictional universe dependent on science, she, too, is the perfect melding of a scientific mind who absolutely believes in the science presented, but who doesn’t allow science to lessen her belief in a higher power. Suvi is an unthreatening religious proponent, one who accepts a Ryder who accepts her: in my opinion, this is how the back-and-forth between people should always be. If Andromeda had just left the religious themes at this, I would have left feeling happy and unimposed on. However, Bioware can never just let things be.
To fully understand my issue, we need to take a look at the Dragon Age series with a focus on Inquisition. Dragon Age’s plot is almost entirely religious: The Maker (“God”) took favor with the warrior Andraste, blessed her with visions, and supported her as she rode across the land fighting in his name. After she was betrayed and burned, He took her to His side and abandoned all other life in Thedas. The Chantry (the religious institution) preaches that everyone is being punished for this betrayal, and that one day the Maker will return. Almost every plot point is in some way driven by the work of the Chantry. If Dragon Age 4 becomes a thing, people guess that the Maker will finally make himself known, yet as much as I want to punch this God in the face, I’m almost hoping this doesn’t happen.
Andrasteism isn’t the only religion shown in the series, but it is the only one that is presented as “correct”. The dwarves have their Paragons—dwarves that, in their life, have contributed a great service to their society and are remembered forever for it in reverence and awe—but each Paragon the players have run across during the three games have been monsters in one way or another. Plus, they’re mortal and thus fallible and incomparable to the Maker. The qunari have the Qun, rules for living what one can interpret as a “virtuous life” in their culture, but the qunari have been portrayed as little more than villains, especially in Inquisition. And the elves have an entire pantheon of gods and goddesses, but Inquisition took care to show the audience how these religious figures were nothing more than powerful ancient elves who were petty and awful and took delight in torturing their own people for their own amusement. Even without being a religious expert myself, the parallels between each of these belief systems to well-established ones in the real world are more than inconsequential– Buddhist influences can be seen in both the Paragon system of the dwarves and the Qun, the Qun also draw on some Taoist beliefs, and the elves’ gods are almost certainly based off of some form of paganism.
What makes this even more infuriating is that all mentions of what the Maker could truly be are mysteriously absent, and the Maker’s followers (the sisters and brothers of the Chantry and the Templars), despite being the sole cause for the beginnings of mage genocide and many other terrible events in the games, are the main group that the narrative continuously paints as potentially morally grey. We’re supposed to forgive the only slightly apologetic past Templar Cullen for hating mages and still wanting them to die, but we’re supposed to look poorly upon the religious elf Merill because her elfy beliefs lead her to utilizing magic the Chantry deems as “unsafe”. Elevating this fictional religion of monotheism and a white-washed Jesus allegory while diminishing all else only proves the story to be Euro-centrist and biased towards Christianity at its core rather than giving each story and each belief system equal standing ground.
This narrative of there being only one “correct” god-figure has its own start in Andromeda, though the argument being presented is positioned against a Ryder who has stated that they don’t believe in any higher power. It doesn’t seem like this theme will rear its ugly head in the beginning. After all, Suvi is, as I mentioned before, pretty chill, and while the angara are intense with expressing their spiritual beliefs, they don’t believe in a god so much as they believe in the reincarnation of their souls within their family lines (if you’re keeping track, a mindset heavily influenced by Buddhism). At the tail end of Andromeda’s second act, though, Ryder discovers that Jaal and the other angara aren’t simply native to the Andromeda galaxy, but that some higher mind among the Remnant (highly advanced ancient technology that up to this point have been enemies) made the angara specifically to live in this galaxy. That is, the Heleus Cluster was specifically crafted for the angara to thrive in.
While this helps to solidify Suvi’s belief in her own higher power, what makes this especially worrying to me is the reaction of the angara. For Jaal’s part, he’s excited: having a galaxy created just for his species symbolizes that the angara weren’t made to suffer at the hands of the kett (the violent, invading species) and that there is hope for their future. Yet after discovering this huge, earth-shaking news, none of the angara seem skeptical or frightened of this idea. None of them hold any anger over being expressly created for the unknown whims of a mysterious overlord. For a species whose spiritual beliefs focused mainly on the process of reincarnation (which, through a quest, was proven to be true) it seems like a strange shift for the narrative to put more focus on this god-like creature while kind of ignoring the already present beliefs held by the angara. Of course the two ideas could exist in the same spiritual belief system, but since the angara are a fictional species whose ideals are inevitably heavily influenced by our real life religions and spirituality, it’s difficult for me to give the writers that much trust given the precedent set by Dragon Age. Again, it feels as though the narrative is claiming that this monotheistic Christian-informed idea of religion–in this case, embodied by Suvi–is right; that one being has created your life, your world and that makes things great. Jaal doesn’t throw away the beliefs he was raised with. Still, his immediate embracing of this new twist in the angara’s history, in addition to having no differing angara opinion to be pitted against and just the kett’s own implied religion to compare to (which is another “work for the good of the group, individuality is bad” thing, similar to the Qun’s beliefs) makes it seem like he’s being… well, colonized by Anglo-centric ideals, to put it bluntly. And that’s presented as a good thing.
Dragon Age and Mass Effect: Andromeda aren’t written by the same team, but this doesn’t mean that ME:A’s newer team is incapable of creating the same or similar narrative hostilities in their universe. As with any facet of culture, religion and spirituality should absolutely have a place in these universes, but it’s when the obvious biases in our real world leak in-game that I start thinking twice about wanting to explore that deeply or even having it presented to me. Monotheism and Christianity aren’t problems in and of themselves, but having it continuously presented in multiple fictional worlds as the “right answer” to spiritual thought is annoying at best and insulting, insensitive, and racist at worst. Suvi believing in her religion and embracing science is a cool aspect to her character, but the angara just accepting this microcosm of implied monotheism is strange and against the angara’s characterization to openly express their typically clashing emotions. While I hope, if the Andromeda series continues, that this doesn’t end up going the whole “symbolic god figure” route that it seems to be, given the state of the Dragon Age series, I don’t have a lot of hope.