War Games But Without The War

I’m playing Mass Effect: Andromeda again, trying to polish off my second playthrough and nab that elusive Platinum trophy. With the sheen of “Oooh, it’s new” worn off, the game is decidedly a buggy mess, UI popups stay on screen long after they should have disappeared and I’ve spent an entire cutscene viewing my character as a party member blocked the camera (after we walked through a door whose opening animation didn’t happen).

It’s a bummer, really, because there’s such promise in it as an idea. A group of explorers, millions of lightyears away from everything they know, strike disaster and have to make do with what they’ve got. There’s first contact with a hostile alien society, and then again with a friendly one. One thing that makes Andromeda really stand out, though, is that for all the fighting and all, the Andromeda Initiative is a fundamentally civilian organization. They ain’t trying to be conquerers, nor are they an army outfitted with warships and other such weaponry — most all of the Initiative’s ships are unarmed.

You play as the Pathfinder, Ryder, and yes, you’re fighting outlaws, genocidal Kett, and ancient Remnant robots, but the narrative as a whole is less about a war than it is exploration and setting up colonies to find a new life. You’re not a member of a group of warfighters, you’re explorers (who are good at fighting, yes). Compare this to the prior Mass Effect games. In the second, you were putting together a team to fight an existential threat, and the third saw you fighting said existential threat. It’s less pronounced in the second, where Shepherd is former military, though one who has thrown in with a militant pro-human organization whose leader believes Shepard is the only one who can stop a mysterious alien threat. There’s a lot of emphasis put on Shepard’s military background and how he’s the one who can fight this war.

It is a pleasant change, then, that Andromeda eschews a militaristic outlook. Even though the Pathfinders are military trained, they’re no longer part of an army; their skills now used to protect the colonists. Though there is a big fight against the Kett, the main drive of the Initiative is to establish a home in the strange Andromeda Galaxy. As much as you’re fighting Kett, defeating them is the goal than is exploring the galaxy and terraforming planets to support life.

A lot of big operatic science fiction tends to revolve around, well, war. Halo and Gears of War are both Thames that revolve around war — but in space! This is not a criticism; setting these stories in space frees them from a measure of baggage. One reason that Halo’s narrative works is that its existential fight is against a genocidal alien alliance so that militaristic rah rah is less rooted in xenophobia (see: most Call of Duty games and other ‘realistic’ militaristic shooters). All the same, when everything is skewed one way, it’s pleasant to see a narrative that goes in another direction.

It’s less an issue of one necessarily being better than another, and more the need to have different narratives. I love Star Wars, but I enjoy watching Star Trek because it’s a fun change to see a group of characters trying to solve the Problem of the Week (but in space!) rather than fighting an out-and-out war. Though the Trek has its Admirals and Captains, Starfleet isn’t a military organization so much as one that’s about exploration. Generals and such need not apply.

All this to say, there’s an enjoyable relief when it comes to these different narratives. For Andromeda to feature a space explorer trying to overcome the challenges of the galaxy and doing stuff instead of being the hardcore military commander is a nice change — one that you don’t really see much in video games. Such a shame that the game itself is so lackluster.

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