It’s a beautiful planet — a garden-world, verdant and eden-esque, but it’s also at war with itself. The planet’s forebears, a powerful race, attempted to harness an ancient artifact, building instruments to channel its power. They planned to make a world in nine days, but in just three, they were gone — a harsh reminder that creation and destruction are kindred forces, often amounting to the same thing. A race of humans inherit this unfinished world, of hostile alien creatures and storms which constantly batter and reshape the landscape. But they find a way to harness the technology of the instruments and through their ingenuity, rise from the dark, flying into the jungle with fire and metal, cutting a home into a world where they never quite seemed to belong.
It’s a good story, but for Bioware fans, many of its elements will be familiar. The power of ancient technology — in Knights of the Old Republic it’s The Star Forge, the orbital foundry you spend the whole game searching for, where Malak plans to create his machine army. In Mass Effect, it’s the eponymous FTL drive found buried on Mars, which launches humans onto the galactic stage, and in turn, signals the Reapers that their systematic cleanse of the universe must begin. In Andromeda it’s the Remnant vaults, environmental control facilities left behind, but also the only hope of the Initiative in creating a new home. In Bioware games, power is only ever inherited.
But creation is the most recognisable theme of all — it dominates the Mass Effect series, right up until the ending of the third game, when the subtext of synthetic vs. organic life bubbled to the surface, and many gamers were surprised to discover this phantom idea was the one Bioware had afforded the seat of honour. Created synthetics will inevitably rebel and destroy organics — we see this with the Quarian creation of the Geth, who realizing their sentience, rebel against their masters. Seeking to solve the problem, the Leviathans create ‘the Intelligence’, with a mandate to preserve life, but in typical ironic AI fashion, the Intelligence realizes the only way to save organics from synthetics, is to periodically harvest them before their civilizations implode.
In the world of Anthem, there are no synthetics — the world is both organic and unashamedly ‘created’. What’s more, we are explicitly told this planet is not earth—the humans in Anthem are not us. So what are they? There is very little recorded history until five hundred years before Anthem’s inception, when the Legion of Dawn ended their equivalent of our Dark Ages. Before then humans were ‘slaves to the violent chaos’ of the world, scattered in bands and settlements across the planet. There are other ruins of human civilization dotted across the surface, but I would point out that Anthem’s world is a hot-bed of life, where destructive forces reshape the environment at will. Human civilization on our planet has only existed for a tiny fraction of time in comparison to our evolutionary development. Not only do Anthem’s humans lack any recorded ancient history, but they don’t seem to fit anywhere in their world’s evolutionary biology. They are anomalies on their own planet.
Anthem’s humans could be just over a few thousand years old, not only a ‘created’ race of organics, but also the game’s protagonist race. Our race. This is not only unprecedented in a sci-fi Bioware game, but in almost every sci-fi game I can think of. But honestly it worries me.
In the Mass Effect trilogy, Bioware crafted an intricate series-spanning narrative about creation and the responsibility of creators, discussing in-depth the value of synthetic vs. organic life. Mass Effect taught me so much about science fiction — not only about the Fermi Paradox, but about issues in regards to AI. Whereas in Anthem, Bioware doesn’t even seem to have clocked the fact that they may have created an organic race — look back at their games and see how important this should be, yet how little weight it’s actually been afforded as a subject. Alternate explanations gnaw at the back of my mind — maybe humans don’t fit this planet’s evolutionary context because they were just trying to create cool alien creatures for people to shoot? Maybe humans have no history because they thought dotting ruins around the planet would be enough to justify their presence? Maybe it was all just an accident?
And the truth is some people won’t care as much as I do about the importance a created organic should hold in a Bioware game, because some people will be happy having something cool to shoot, which is fine. But games are never truly independent bodies — ideas, for lack of a better word, develop, moving between and informing every piece of work. Just like the anomalous humans in Anthem, no game can ever really escape the story of its creators. I just want to have faith that the themes and ideas Bioware built their heritage and reputation upon remain uncompromised for future gamers to enjoy. After all, as the Intelligence in Mass Effect understood, preservation and destruction can often look surprisingly similar.