Tag Archives: Mass Effect Andromeda

Colonialism… IN SPACE!

While replaying Mass Effect: Andromeda I’m struck by one particular element of its central narrative: Colonialism. The game’s story sees a bunch of pioneers from the Milky Way, the Andromeda Initiative, arriving in the Andromeda Galaxy, ready to explore and set up a new life and all that. Turns out, their chosen chunk of Andromeda — the Heleus Cluster — is already inhabited, by the native angara and the invading kett. If the Initiative is to set up shop here, they’re gonna have to navigate relations with the other two species here.

All this sounds an awful lot like a sort of colonialism redux. A technologically advanced outsider group arrives in a new place and starts throwing their weight around. Though the angara are as advanced as your typical science fiction race — faster than light travel, holograms, etc — they are also a fallen group, the shadow of a magnificent civilization laid low. There’s no doubt that they are the Other and, when compared to the Initiative and their sleek aesthetics, comparatively primitive.

The comparison here is fair: although the Initiative is composed of humans from a variety of ethnicities in addition to aliens from across the Milky Way, within the narrative they are still outsiders entering into another group’s territory. Sure, it’s all a galaxy away, but it is a story that exists in our world, and so is seen through that lens. Dress the boats as spaceships all you want, colonialism remains colonialism.

Of course, this is Mass Effect, a series too self-aware to blithely reenact Columbus. The Initiative is splintered, the same Scourge that brought down the angara throws a massive wrench in the Initiative’s intricate plans. The garden worlds are wastelands and attempts at settling has proven deadly. The narrative in Andromeda is changed: the colonizers aren’t quite marching in triumphant; they’re a scrappy group trying to pull it all together. The Initiative isn’t here to conquer the angara, they want an alliance.

It helps that there’s also the kett, the de facto villains of the game and, narratively, the actual force of colonialism. Like the Initiative, the kett hail from beyond the Heleus Cluster. Unlike the Initiative, these guys have no use for cultural exchange. The kett are conquerors, exterminating the angara or exalting them — assimilating their DNA into their own and transforming the angara into drone-like footsoldiers. Within the context of the game’s narrative, exaltation is seen as monstrous and barbaric. On a meta level, the complete annihilation and absorption of a race seems not unlike a science-fiction reinterpretation of the conquistadors.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and so the Initiative winds up allied with the angara against the kett. The folks from the Milky Way aren’t the colonizers, how could they be when the kett are here following a page from Cortes’ rulebook? The dynamic between the kett and the angara — along with the Initiative being on their off-foot — means Andromeda can safely tell a story about exploring colonizers without having to really confront the problematic nature of colonialism. The Initiative, and therein the game itself, is absolved of malicious colonialist undertones because the villainous kett are the bad colonizers; the Initiative is allying itself with the locals!

Yet the game does fall into the trap of the White Savior narrative. No, the (human) members of the Initiative aren’t all white, and the player’s Pathfinder can be whatever race you want them to be; but just as the undertones of colonialism play out within the relationship between the angara  and Initiative, so does this one. At the start of the game, the angara are in a limbo: their civilization has fallen and they’re losing a war of attrition with the kett. It’s the Pathfinder and the Initiative — and their technology — that both turns the tides of the fight and helps the angara reclaim some of their past. The Pathfinder is the outsider who helps — teaches — the natives their own ways.

At the end of the day, of course, this isn’t all terrible. There is a lot of leeway afforded science-fiction, and Andromeda does do good work to avoid ascribing the more problematic aspects of colonialism to its heroes. If anything, I’m fascinated by the way this game dances around with the topic and its ramifications. Because I could just play the game, or at least that’s what I tell myself as I think way too much about it.

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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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Andromeda: After The Fact

I finally finished my first playthrough of Mass Effect: Andromeda and dutifully started my second (this time as Sara instead of Scott). Ramping up the difficulty to Insanity makes combat much more frantic (and thereby makes the brilliant combat systems that much more fun), but we’ll see how far I get through it before I decide to finally replay Uncharted 4 because a) it’s a better game, 2) I haven’t replayed it, and iii) my god I want to play a game that was actually finished.

Because there’s no doubt that Andromeda was rushed in some places. Its combat may be incredibly fluid, but a much of its mission design is outright boring. Some of the character models look great, but the animation in some parts is glitchy at best and magnificently awful at worst. And the writing. In parts, its great; in other parts it reads like a hasty first draft. And all this is not getting into the wonky pacing and exploitable systems that plague the game. But Andromeda is still a stupid amount of fun – it wrapped up well enough that I started a New Game+ after finishing it the first time. In fact, I’d say that most of its issues are emblematic of the central tensions in many AAA video games.

So let’s start with its look, something that’s gotten a lot of crap on the internet. And rightfully so; it’s very weird to talk to someone who’s mouth is moving, but eyes are lifeless. There’s a fairly important cutscene where a character model just didn’t show up. Heck, even some of the romance scenes, which developer BioWare is famous for, are halting and glitchy. It’s a mess, heightened all the more since the character models and general graphics are pretty good. The animation issues, at times, overshadow everything else that’s going on. Sure, you have pretty worlds and characters and a sometimes-well written and often well-voiced script, but it’s easy to forget all that when the character’s acting is wooden. So maybe BioWare and publisher EA should have pushed the release back a couple months to work out the kinks.

But why is there such a reliance on a game looking ‘good?’ We’re reaching a point ‘good graphics’ has become standard, with some, like Kojima Production’s FOX Engine, verging on literally lifelike. Thing is, when everything looks good, that’s no longer enough to stand out, and if your animation is shoddy – as in Andromeda – it becomes glaringly obvious. Other games find ways to complement their graphics: Uncharted 4’s animation is unparalleled, and games like Borderlands and Dishonored stylize their characters and locations. Then there are smaller, indie games like Sportsfriends or Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime which have simple, even retro, graphics, but ones that work with the gameplay.

Which is where Andromeda’s pretty good. Gameplay is solid, the addition of the jetpack and different AI making it much more dynamic that prior Mass Effects’ waiting-and-shooting. And with difficulty on Insanity, it’s got me using the new Profiles feature as much as I can. Andromeda is fun. But some of its missions are terribly repetitive: you go down a lot of corridors and clear out a lot of cookie-cutter bases. Sometimes there are moments of genius, like getting to dash through a battlefield in your space car or the narrative gives mystery to exploring an ancient alien superstructure, but when the vast majority of side missions are fetch quest after fetch quest, it gets really dull. Andromeda is a long game – I logged over 90 hours by the time I beat the game – but its myriad of fetch quests make it out to be padding out the length. Not to mention they distract from the central narrative (which, once it gets going, is actually not half bad). So is quantity or quality better? Uncharted 4 is a fifteen-odd hour game, but its narrative is incredibly tight and doesn’t fall into repetitiveness. It would take a lotta work to fill four full days worth of gameplay with Interesting Stuff, so maybe Andromeda could have used some tight cuts?

I will complain about Andromeda a lot. But I also really liked the game – again, I’ve started a second playthrough. I think that AAA games like Andromeda are reaching a tipping point where the old rubric of what made a game exciting (graphics! gameplay! big budget!) are no longer enough to make a game stand out. I do wish Andromeda was better than it is, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad game. Rather, its flaws are ones we see in a lot of other AAA games – look at Destiny. Maybe there’s a shift coming in the way games are made, maybe the next Mass Effect, whenever it comes out, will get things right. In any case, it’s a perfect adequate game. But we’re reaching a point where that’s not enough anymore.

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The Problem With Narrative Sidequests

One of the most striking features of the planet Elaaden is a huge derelict Remnant ship. Sticking out broken over the desert planet, the ship could hold answers for the mystery of the old killer robots that populate Mass Effect: Andromeda. The latest game in the Mass Effect video game series has a strong focus one exploration, namely that titular distant galaxy. There’s so much to see, so much to find out.

But I still haven’t gone to the ship, despite having done basically every other sideqeust available on the planet. This isn’t so much a case of saving the best for last, as much as it is putting off what I expect will be a fun-if-pointless mission.

Because the Remnant Derelict is not a Priority Mission (that is, a story mission), it’s highly unlikely that any Major Plot Twisting Details will happen. If there is some massive revelation about the Remnant waiting in the wings, whatever’s aboard that ship will either tease it or corroborate it, depending on when I play it in relation to that story mission.

Andromeda is an open world RPG. There are Priority Missions I play one after another, these make up the main plot. I complete Mission A, then I can do Mission B, and so on until the game ends. Meanwhile, there are these sidequests, things I can do around the galaxy be it earning my squad’s loyalty or blowing up a Kett tower. Those sidequests can be done in any order and at any point after you’ve unlocked them (usually by completing another sidequest, or progressing to a certain point along the Priority Mission chain). This means that I could have explored that Remnant Derelict when I first found it a couple Priority Missions ago, or I could wait and only explore it after I’ve finished the main story – and the central plot played out. Thus, the mission has to accommodate either timeline. This in turn limits the developments that the sidequest can have, nothing can happen here that would affect a Priority Mission in a big way.

Consider, if you will, a hypothetical game based on Firefly and Serenity. Midway through the movie, we find out that the Reavers, a savage group of spacefaring barbarians, were in fact accidentally  created by the Alliance (spoiler). In the hypothetical game, you wouldn’t find this out in a sidequest, it’d be a  paradigm-shifting story quest that would affect the crew through any major plot developments. Thus if there was a sidequest where you could explore an old Reaver ship or an Alliance Databank, this twist wouldn’t be there. Anything you found would be cool, but self-contained.

This is the hurdle that open games have to deal with. Something more linear, like Uncharted or Halo, progress in one direction like a movie, scene 1 into scene 2; there’s no scene 1.5. Every level/chapter/scene will affect the plot in some way. Giving the player a choice means the game’s writers and programmers have to have planned whichever path the player takes.

In Kingdom Hearts the player can visit a variety of worlds in whatever order they want. They’ll pal around with Aladdin, Alice, and Ariel, then have to go to a specific world where More Story happens. This isn’t too pressing most of the time, but as the plot picks up, visiting Halloween Town or Monstro’s belly feels like a filler episode in the larger narrative of Sora and Mickey’s adventure. They can’t impact the plot too much because the player may have another world to complete before the next Big Story Moment.

There are game critics, Ian Bogost and Johnathan Blow among them, who argue that games and stories don’t mesh well. And in some ways they do have a point. Either you have a linear game (like Uncharted) where the player is given no narrative agency (and so is a glorified interactive movie) or you have the case of Andromeda or Kingdom Hearts where the extent of then player’s agency affects the distribution of the game’s narrative.  Either the narrative ignores you or you strain against it. Digital gaming can’t seem to catch up with good old tabletop rpg’s, where the game master is making stories on the fly in response to their players’ decisions.

But video games are still a young genre. The amount of player agency in Andromeda would have been unheard of twenty years ago. It’s a bummer that it can’t anticipate and account for everything, but who’s to say games won’t in the future? Exploring a virtual world in Andromeda is a great experience, even if it exposes some of the issues with open world games. Yes, the narrative failings are frustrating, but it’s a step forward towards what games could be. Risks propel the medium forward; who knows where we’ll be in twenty years.

Of course, I could be totally wrong and that derelict ship may have a crapload of secrets about the Remnant and it turns out Andromeda has untold variations of its Priority Missions prepared in its code with each one voiced and animated ready to go. But the point stands; for all the issues with open ended video games, the potential remains. And that’s exciting. Bring on the AI game masters!

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Emerging Exploration

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a magnificently glitchy game. I have seen a crewmate go through osmosis while talking to him, I’ve fought an alien dinosaur that suddenly stopped moving its body (but still glided along the jungle floor and attacked me), and, through cunning manipulation of my space-car’s six wheel drive and boost functions, have successfully driven up a vertical cliff face (though arguably that’s a feature, not a bug). Of course, there are weirder visual flaws, like most of a character’s face not moving while they speak or the world being so big that the game forgets to load the people I have to talk to to complete my quest. It’s frustrating sometimes – and downright baffling other times that a AAA game would ship like this.

But, my god, it’s fun. I’ve sunk way too many hours into exploring the Heleus cluster of the Andromeda Galaxy since the game came out and have no intention of slowing down; far as I can tell I’m 30 hours and maybe 25% in. I’m having a blast. And yes, a lot of the fun is through scripted missions, where I’m told to go to x planet and do y thing; but the world of Andromeda is so big that there are so many random adventures to get to.

Like the time on Eos where I woke the Architect, a colossal robot hellbent on killing me that I alternately shot at or hopped in the Nomad (the space-car of before) and chased so I could shoot it some more. Or going spelunking in ancient ruins looking for loot and coming face to face with my first Destroyer, a war machine that put up a heckuva fight. Or – so many ors – deciding to storm a Kett base on Eos with an offensive that started with me ramming the Nomad into a few bad guys and wedging on top of an automated turret. Bugginess be damned, there’s fun to be had! With some well-crafted quests and a vast and interesting world, Andromeda’s side quests make even fetch quests feel somewhat purposeful.

What really helps it out, though, is the emergent fun that comes from the game. Emergent gameplay, as opposed to structure, is an aspect of the game that is not hard-wired into the system, but emerges from it being played. To cite an example from Jesper Juul, there is no explicit rule in Monopoly that a player will go bankrupt, but it happens because of the rules. Emergences. Hence the name.

So Mass Effect: Andromeda and emergent gameplay. Let’s take driving the Nomad through a bunch of Kett and sending them flying. At no point in the game does it say you can use your space-car as a weapon, and yet, it works. Even the self-imposed challenge of climbing up rock faces isn’t hardcoded into the game, but it’s ridiculously fun. Andromeda gives you a playground where the missions are cool, but the fun you make for yourself is fantastic.

Which makes me think back to Destiny, a game with a barebones story and an amazingly fun gameplay. My fondest memory of the game is easily the Vault of Glass raid where me and five other players navigated a treacherous maze and took on – and defeated – Atheon. Sure, the level design and all is fantastic, but what makes it so great were the folks I teamed up with: our banter and teamwork. That’s something wonderfully special that was not intended by the game’s framework, but rather encouraged and permitted. 

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a single player game, so there’s less chances of impromptu dance parties (seriously: every multiplayer game needs dancing emotes). But it is still host to one of the best things about games: the freedom to explore a virtual space and, ignoring intended intentions, finding new ways to interact with the world.

Which in my case has been a fine-tuned assault strategy involving charging right in with my space-car and hoping for the best.

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On Visibility and Character Creators

I spent well over an hour creating my character in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Not stats and stuff, no, just the aesthetics of his/my face.

I love character creators. Maybe it’s an early exposure to The Sims, maybe it’s the simple joy of getting to play god and make people who look like whatever you want. In a game like Mass Effect where half the fun is making choices and carving your own narrative through the galaxy, I find that character customization adds another level of immersion. That Shepard or Ryder isn’t just someone off the box, it’s someone you made. And also, if you want, the character’s you. You get to see yourself as the protagonist.

As for making me?

I’m mixed. I don’t fit into ‘presets,’ and if I have to, I have to check one box. Pick the head that looks the most like me. Maybe in Knights of The Old Republic I’ll be white, but I’ll be Asian in Shadowrun: Dragonfall. Now, character creators as in Mass Effect, with sliders for adjusting eye height and nose size, allow you a lot more latitude for how your person looks (and games like The Sims is notorious for being able to create eerie doppelgängers).

But Mass Effect: Andromeda bases its customization on presets. So you can’t change eye shape, eyebrows, ears, and the general shape of the face, but can adjust skin tone, hair, and cheekbone placement. Naturally, a lot of those presets are based on races, here’s white guy a, white guy b, Asian dude a, Asian dude b, and so on. Which makes sense. But for me, it means playing around with either one trying to make them look more like the other. Y’know, trying to find that sweet spot on the sliding scale between Asian and white where I exist.

See, for most of my life I’ve been pegged for one or the other, in part because the idea of someone existing in the middle is, in some places, somewhat unheard of. Being a mixed-race, biracial kid isn’t something that comes up much at all if you’re not one, so you kinda ignore it and I’m left figuring out which box to check on a survey.

Which is why representation is so important. People like me don’t show up a lot in fiction. Well, white dudes do a lot, Asian guys much less often, and mixed actors playing mixed characters are basically non-existent. I wanna see myself in the media I consume, I wanna see a movie where someone who looks like me gets to be a hero.

Because it’d be nice to be told I exist by the stuff I watch and games I play. ‘cuz maybe then I wouldn’t be lumped in with one side or the other and now be allowed to exist in that middle space. This, I suppose, is the feeling of every under-represented group. We want to see ourselves in the stories we consume, and we want to see ourselves doing a buncha different things. This means not being pigeonholed into one accepted narrative or stereotype, this means letting different people be normal.

And yes, letting different people explore the Andromeda galaxy.

Whether or not my long-labored Ryder bears a resemblance to me is a matter up for debate, one that probably depends on what race you think I look more like. The preset I chose, however, was the one whose eyebrows looked most like mine.

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