Tag Archives: Video Games

Showing, Not Telling

There’s this saying in writing that you should show, not tell; that is instead of telling the audience about how John is smart, write a scene where we get to see that John is smart. That way the audience can see how smart John is and think to themselves “Wow, John is smart.” Idea is because the audience drew their own conclusion (rather than being told such) it’ll resonate more.

A similar rule of thumb applies to video games, except instead of just seeing something it’s better to be able to play it. Watching a character fight a boss is one thing, getting to actually fight that boss is fantastic. Over the years, there have been different attempts by different game designers to figure out how to let players play scenes. Half Life never took control away from the player, allowing them to look around outside the tram car as they made their way into Black Mesa (or muck around in a room as a scientist provided story information). A clunkier solution was the use of quick time events, interactive cutscenes where you’d essentially press a button for your character not to die and the scene to continue. At its worst, these QTEs interrupted the flow of the game/cutscene: throwing in reflex-based minigames when you least expect it, forcing you to do over these scenes again and again.

The rationale behind QTEs – letting the player remain involved in scenes that don’t quite work with the controls – is a good one. Kingdom Hearts II had a really neat solution: Reaction Commands. During some fights with some enemies, a prompt would appear where if you hit triangle you would trigger a special move. If you were fighting a Samurai Nobody, you could trigger a stand-off where Sora and his opponent face off in a samurai movie style duel. Other Reaction Commands have him using an enemy’s abilities against the other bad guys or allowing for some really cool moves in boss fights. It adds depth to combat and, importantly and let’s the player be the one who pulls off that really badass anime-esque move.

It’s been a while since that game came out, though, and in the meantime others have been figuring out how to let the player take a more active role. Uncharted 2 let the player still be in control during big set pieces, like maneuvering through a collapsing building, fighting bad guys, and then jumping through the breaking window into the building next door. It’s a fairly typical trope for an action movie, but what makes it so cool in Uncharted 2 is that you are the one who does it. It’s not a cutscene or even a qte, you’re in complete control of Drake as he scrambles around. The bar was raised and many games followed suit, finding ways to keep the player in control during big moments, further immersing the player into the game.

All this brings me (once more) to Kingdom Hearts III where a lot of the action is not just unplayable but actually takes place off screen.

I’m gonna be talking about the ending here too, so there are spoilers beyond this point!

From the get go you’re told that Kairi and Axel are training to become Keyblade Wielders. Cool, but aside from one cutscene of them talking, we don’t actually see any of this happening until several hours later where we see them talking again before the climax. This is a small thing, but it’s emblematic of the game’s tendency to tell you about things more than showing you, much less, I dunno, getting to play as Kairi or Axel as they train. But maybe that’s me asking more of the game than it offered.

The ending, however, sees Xehanort defeated but a slain Kairi not rescued. So Sora sets off to rescue her, ignoring Mickey’s warning that misusing his Power of Waking could have dire consequences. And that’s it until, during the epilogue, we see Sora and Kairi sitting on a tree in the Destiny Islands…and he fades away.

The intended tragedy of Sora sacrificing himself to save Kairi doesn’t quite land, however; in no small part because we don’t actually get to see it happen. While there is certainly a measure of poetic understatement in how it’s portrayed on screen, we’re not given nearly enough lead up for it to really work. If we’re gonna make Kairi need to be rescued again, why don’t we get to actually rescue her? For it to just happen offscreen feels so anticlimactic and robs it of its emotional weight.

I have my issues with Kingdom Hearts III, particularly how its pacing feels so darn weird. That so much of the plot happens off screen, including a vital part of the epilogue, leaves the player (me) feeling really unfulfilled. Point is, show, don’t tell; and if you’re making a video game, let us play the important bits.

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Frickin’ Damsels

The original Kingdom Hearts follows a pretty typical story structure. Boy is childhood friends with Girl and Rival. Home gets destroyed, everyone gets separated. Boy sets out to find Girl and Rival. Girl is captured by bad guys, Rival turns to dark side. Boy rescues Girl, helps redeem Rival.

In the third game, Kingdom Hearts II (don’t ask about the numbering), the Girl, Kairi, winds up being captured by the bad guys again and the Boy, Sora, sets out to rescue her again. There are turns and twists, more Disney worlds, and stuff.

There’s nothing really ~fancy~ inherent in the broad strokes of the games’ stories, most of the fun comes from its aesthetic of mixing Final Fantasy tropes with Disney characters and worlds. They draw a lot from the Disney canon and Saving The Princess is a big part of that whole thing. Plus, rescuing Kairi isn’t the big climax or resolution of the first game. Even after she’s rescued there’s still Stuff To Do. It’s not an excuse for damseling her, by no means, but it’s something. She also gives Sora the Oathkeeper Keybalde (which is objectively the best Keyblade).

The good news is that even though she does wind up something of a damsel in Kingdom Hearts II, by the end of it she’s using her own Keyblade and fighting bad guys. That’s right, after all this time having Sora and Riku save her, now she can fight her own battles.

Anyway, thirteen real-world years go by, a bunch of other Kingdom Hearts games come out and I play a couple of them. And finally, Kingdom Hearts III, the tenth game in the series (please don’t ask about the numbering) came out last month. Something teased by the prior games is that it’s been leading up to a bunch of heroes fighting a bunch of villains, one of those fighting heroes being a Keyblade wielding Kairi. Which, dope. Let’s have the Boy, Girl, and Rival fighting together against the bad guy in the kind of anime showdown I’ve been awaiting for the past thirteen odd years.

Alright, here there be spoilers for Kingdom Hearts III, as I’m gonna be getting into plot details. I haven’t finished the game yet, but I’m getting real close to that final boss.

Kairi gets sidelined for a good chunk of the game, off training with another character. Cool, fine, but we only see her in a couple cutscenes, which is a bit of a bummer, but, fine, it’s fundamentally Sora’s story after all. When everyone shows up at the Keyblade Graveyard it’s finally time to rock and roll, and everyone’s fighting. After an initial defeat, it’s Kairi who rescues Sora after he’s saved everyone else, which is a delightful twist to have him be saved by her for a change. Look at how this game has grown, man!

Big showdown happens again, with Sora going to his allies in turn to assist them in fighting one of the villains. It’s while helping Kairi that the fight is interrupted with a cutscene — and Kairi gets captured by Xemnas who overpowers her by twisting her hand over her head.

Okay.

So.

Kairi, Keyblade wielder, is overpowered that easily? And then she’s turned into a damsel again!? It’s frustrating how straight this is played, Kairi makes no attempt to fight back against Xemnas, instead struggling helplessly. Sora, of course, is pissed and here we go again, a male character motivated by the endangerment of his sometimes love interest.

Great.

Oh, but wait, it gets better.

Sora defeats Xemnas and the other villains and is now staring down the Big Bad Xehanort. He taunts Sora, summoning an unconscious Kairi, and decides that Sora needs some motivation.

So he kills Kairi.

Explicitly to give Sora some motivation. The villain (and narrative) effectively fridges Kairi for the plot.

Look, I love Kingdom Hearts but it’s 2019, can we please stop treating female characters like this? We’ve done the damsel in distress over and over again, can we just, not? Can’t there be some other motivation for Sora to really wanna defeat Xehanort besides him offing Kairi? It’s lazy, and frustrating, especially when the story’s already made her a fighter. It seems like the game undercuts her growth at every turn, reducing her again and again to being just a plot point for Sora to be motivated by or to rescue. As other major games have been making great strides in how they handle female characters, it’s such a shame to see Kingdom Hearts regress to old habits. It’s just plain lazy.

I haven’t finished the game yet, and maybe, just maybe I’m judging the game prematurely; maybe just maybe they’ll find a way to redeem Kairi’s character. But somehow, I doubt it; at the end of it all, Kairi’s just another damsel. Again.

And to top it all off, I didn’t even get Oathkeeper out of it.

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Final Bosses

A mainstay staple of video games is the final boss. After a number of levels (or dungeons, chapters, what have you) you finally fight the Biggest Baddest Boss, the defeat of which leads to  winning the game and the ultimate resolution. It’s the climax of the game, both from a gameplay perspective and narrative one: everything has led to this.

It’s important that the Final Boss feels like a Final Boss, though. I love Uncharted 3, but one issue the game has is that it’s final boss, a showdown with Talbot, doesn’t quite land. Talbot hasn’t really been Nate’s nemesis, so the fight, though big, doesn’t really feel like That Big Moment. Comparatively, Rafe in Uncharted 4 spends much of the game as a foil for Nate, so fighting him is not just a culmination of the game, but also feels in many ways like Nate fighting his own inner demons.

The Mega Man games, though a series that varies wildly on narrative quality, is a stellar example of mythic storytelling. This extends to its grasp of the Final Boss. After beating the eight (or so) regular bosses and going through the multiple levels of Wiley’s fortress, Mega Man has to reface the eight (or so) prior bosses one after another before finally fighting Wiley. But because you, the player, have already beaten these guys, you know their patterns and their weaknesses and will have a much easier time beating them than long before. In the lead up to the final fight you can see how much you’ve grown; now that you can beat Heat Man easily you’re definitely ready to take on Wiley. Before facing that Final Boss it’s important to remember all that came before and how now, more than ever before, you’re ready for this culmination.

And guess what! The Final Boss principle applies to stories as much as they do to games. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious, the Final Boss in Empire Strikes Back is Darth Vader, whom Luke must face to complete his arc in that story. That one plays out not too much unlike how it would in a video game: it’s a hero against a villain, the hero hoping his training pays off. But it doesn’t have to be a conflict like that. Hot Rod has a Final Boss, and it’s not Rod finally kicking his step-father’s ass. It’s him attempting that massive jump over the busses: it’s his moment, it’s what the movie has led to, it’s what allows him to self-actualize.

Of course, Final Bosses aren’t always so obviously so; just about any good story should have one. Eighth Grade doesn’t have much in the way of villains for Kayla to fight, but there still is a Final Boss. In a nice touch, Kayla’s Final Boss turns out to not be another girl or even the guy that tried to take advantage of her: it’s herself, from the past. When Kayla opens a time capsule she’d left herself a couple years ago she’s forced to reckon with who she thought she’d be by now. Despite not seeming like a particularly big moment it’s a profound one for Kayla that leads to a quiet resolution with her father and a renewed lease on life. It’s the opponent that Kayla must overcome to succeed. We know it’s her Final Boss because we’ve spent the past hour-plus with her, and we know how much this means to her.

It’s when a Final Boss isn’t particularly clear that a story’s pacing begins to feel wonky. Alita: Battle Angel is a really fun movie that I really enjoyed, but couldn’t help but feel let down by the ending because it turns out I hadn’t realized Alita was fighting the movie’s final boss when she was; something that’s complicated by us not really knowing what it is Alita wants. Luke Skywalker and Mega Man want to defeat Darth Vader and Dr. Wiley, so we know who their bosses are. Rod Kimble wants to be a stuntman, and so accomplishing that is his Final Boss. Kayla struggles with being comfortable as herself, and so she is her own Final Boss.

For Alita it’s not clear if the big motorball game is the titular character’s Final Boss, or if it’s the giant cyborg who’s been plaguing her throughout. Or the guy pulling the cyborg’s strings. Or the guy pulling that guy’s strings. If Alita is a story about identity (and it certainly feels like one) shouldn’t her Final Boss involve her declaring who she is? That the movie’s Final Boss happened without me realizing (and honestly, I’m still not sure who or what it was) leads to a feeling of hanging threads with the story. ‘cuz man, I wanted to see Alita and the Final Boss square off!

Final Bosses and climaxes are similar enough ideas, but I think I like the term Final Boss because it’s clear that that encounter is with the ultimate obstacle. It’s what the hero has to overcome to ‘win,’ to self-actualize. It can be a big fight or a personal reflection, but most importantly, we gotta know what it is when it happens.

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KH3: GOTY 2008ish

As I continue to play Kingdom Hearts III while balancing all these newfound adult responsibilities that have sprung up since Kingdom Hearts II came out thirteen years ago, I’m struck over and over again by how much of a flashback the game is. Not just in the way that it makes me feel like a teenager again, but in how it embodies a game design ethos that’s been eschewed by a more contemporary zeitgeist.

For example: Invisible walls.

Virtual game spaces are limited by nature —there’s only so much world you can code. Figuring out how to demarcate that boundary has been a near-constant tension in game design. Mario cannot go backwards once the screen has advanced, if Mega Man tries to go beyond the edges of the map it’s a bottomless pit and he dies. Classic Pokémon has its hedges and fences that prevent you from wandering off the map. As games progressed into a more proper 3D space, limiting the play area became harder. There was only so much mileage you could get out of high walls and bottomless pits when you’re trying to make these massive, immersive spaces. Invisible walls were one solution; here’s a foot-high fence but try to jump over it and you’ll be unable to proceed. It’s an understandable device, but over time level designers have found more elegant solutions, be it by hiding those invisible walls in a thicket of trees, creating a level so intricate that the player cannot easily find the edge, or using a narrative intervention where the player’s character decides to turn around (and if you don’t you die!).

Kingdom Hearts III is having none of that and is all about those straight-up invisible walls. Not even the sort where they make it look there’s a ~magical~ barrier; nah, these are actual invisible walls that prevent you from jumping on to that rock over there that you could probably almost definitely reach. It’s almost charming in its bluntness, in how no attempt is made to disguise it. It’s positively old fashioned, particularly jarring against the game’s very contemporary graphics.

This probably factors into the nostalgic factor of the game, but there are so many things that make Kingdom Hearts III feel like a much older game. Where many modern games have been trying to find ways to keep players in control as much as possible, Kingdom Hearts III goes all in on its massive combat finishers and the like — these things are long enough for me to put the controller down and take a hefty sip of my beer! And also limited combos in an action game? The Arkham games and more recently Spider-Man let you whale on opponents endlessly, but Kingdom Hearts III still rocks the upgradeable three-hit-combo. When you’re used to being able to chain together hits, blocks, and dodges it’s weird to have to operate within a paradigm that requires a more measured approach that somehow also means mashing ‘X’ a lot.

Then there’s the animation. Major AAA game studios are all about that motion capture these days: they get actors to actually act out the scenes and then animate based on that. It’s what gives the beautiful cutscenes that Naughty Dog is known for. Kingdom Hearts III makes no attempt at that verisimilitude. Sora, Donald, and Goofy will stand around in cutscenes in their default stance, gesture as part of their dialogue/action, and then return back to their default immediately after. This was par for the course around the time Kingdom Hearts II came out in 2005, but it’s been a while, man. Once again, it’s almost charming to see how much this game harkens back to an earlier time; if anything it’s a marker of how far the ethos of game designed has evolved over the years.

I still don’t know if Kingdom Hearts III is an objectively good game. But what I do know is that I’m having an absolute blast playing it and, had this game been released closer to its predecessor, it’d definitely be a contender for Game of The Year… but, like, in 2008.

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Thirteen Or So Years Later

I think it was my cousin who turned me in to Kingdom Hearts, years ago, via a ROM of Chain of Memories. It was a novel game, mixing as it did Disney worlds with a Final Fantasy mentality. I played the original PS2 game later and shortly after rented the third game, Kingdom Hearts II from Blockbuster (remember those?) and subsequently bought it. This was all back around the summer of 2006.

This past Tuesday, the tenth non-remake game in the series came out: Kingdom Hearts III (the numbering system is weird, man). I’ve frequently made the joke that I’ve gotten old waiting for the game to come out, a gag which culminated in a recent Instagram post. It’s been a long time since Kingdom Hearts II and it to finally be holding — and playing — this game feels almost surreal.

I’m not talking about the plot here. Though III is the third numbered sequel and tenth game, all those spin-offs, interquels, and prequels have all been integral to the overarching story. But never mind the scope, length, or complexity of those games; here at last is a big one meant for the PS4 (and XBox One) and meant to be played on a tv. This is Kingdom Hearts freaking III. Not 2.8, not 358/2 Days, and not 3D: Dream Drop Distance, it’s frickin’ III.

So like I said, it’s surreal to finally be playing a proverbial white whale of video games. I’m playing Kingdom Hearts again, man. I did buy and play the remakes for the PS3, so it’s not like I haven’t touched this world in the last dozen-odd years. The sense of the surreal doesn’t stem from an unfamiliarity to it all — I’m quite used to seeing Mickey Mouse discussing the darkness in people’s hearts. It’s that here’s a new game, so long after the last one and yet so familiar. I’m playing this game in my apartment in Queens, and yet in some ways I feel like I’m a teenager back in South Carolina on summer vacation. For all its shiny graphics and the bells and whistles afforded as a major contemporary game, much of Kingdom Hearts feels like an older game; it very much plays like its predecessors.

It’s a good sequel in that it feels like a continuation. But through it all, I’m terribly curious about why this game, at once very new and yet more familiar than just about any sequel I’ve played resonates so strongly. What is it about it that tinges it with such nostalgia?

Part of it, I reckon, is because it’s a video game. Games are, by their nature, interactive and thus there is a level of projection to their immersion. I’m the one who rescued Kairi and teamed up with Donald Duck and Goofy to beat Ansem. Returning to an old series will of course bring back those memories. The other thing is that no other game quite has mechanics like the core Kingdom Hearts games. Sure, I spent a lot of time playing Halo when I was younger, but replaying it or embarking on its sequels reminds me of how great a first-person shooter it is. There’s no other game that plays quite the same as these, even director Tetsuya Nomura and Square Enix’s other Final Fantasy games aren’t quite similar.

Then of course there’s how singular this game is. Where else are ya gonna get Donald Duck, Jack Sparrow, and a kid with anime hair fighting monsters? The nostalgia towards Kingdom Hearts no doubt builds off of childhood memories of Disney stories, retold now in the over-the-top melodrama expected of a quality JRPG. I’ve shot space aliens in Halo, Mass Effect, and a plethora of Star Wars games; I’ve gone treasure hunting and spelunking in Uncharted, Tomb Raider, and Assassin’s Creed. But there’s really no other game quite like Kingdom Hearts.

I’m only five-or-so hours into the game. Unlike the Josh of thirteen years ago, I have a job and other adult responsibilities to attend to. But the game’s a lotta fun. It doesn’t matter too much how ‘good’ it is (and I’m not so sure it’s really that good for a game released in 2019), it’s a new big Kingdom Hearts game and it’s about time.

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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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