Mess Effect: Andyou’reawhatnow?: Foreseeing the Forerunners Foresight (A Mass Effect Retrospective part 1)

Bet I’m the First Person to Use That ‘Mess Effect’ Pun …Right?

Mass Effect Andromeda 2

I don’t know what people are talking about.  I’m playing Mass Effect and I love it.

Actually, that’s too small a word.  I adore it.  Without reservation.  Warts and all.  It’s splendid.

It’s a game equally sprawling and bold and beautiful.  Rich and atmospheric, spilling over with captivating characters, and dense with philosophically complex social and political mores to traverse.  It takes its mythology seriously, but is frequently still playful and wry.  And yeah, sure, there’s a bit of janky design and clunky animation, but it remains a visual and auditory marvel, with absorbing, sprawling game play and a sense of endless potential.  It’s everything I’ve ever wanted in an interactive narrative experience, and has easily become one of my favourite video games ever.

No wonder they made a sequel.

Oh –

Sorry.  You probably thought I meant Mass Effect: Andromeda, right?  Simply because I knowingly engineered the beginning of this column to actively imply that I was?  Simply because I used an Andromeda picture in the header – and another one right here?

Mass Effect Andromeda 1

IMAGE: Intentionally misleading

Simply because I am a jerk?

Yeah, but no.  No, I meant the original Mass Effect.  Classic, not New flavour.  The decade old first entry into what I’m happily rediscovering might now well be considered a largely superfluous franchise.

It’s fair to say that the release of the new Mass Effect: Andromeda – the first game in the series since the ignominious conclusion of Mass Effect 3 five years ago – has been met with a tempered enthusiasm at best, and mocking scorn at worst.  Over the past several weeks the game has been knocked for its bizarre facial animations, game-stalling bugs, and stilted dialogue – videos of which seemed to have mutated on contact with the internet into a virulent strain of snarky (if admittedly hilarious) memes.

There are suspicions that the game was rushed out before it had finished development (given the state of Mass Effect 3 when it was released, this would not surprise me), that its pacing is slowed to tedium by rote fetch-quest padding, and that it is littered with multiple unresolved plot threads that serve more as cheap bait for future DLC packs and sequels than offering a satisfying narrative experience in its own right.

(Please note: I’ve not played the game, myself; this is simply what I am gleaning from the general scuttlebutt on the interwebs.  And do not take this as an attempt to denigrate anyone else’s interest in the game.  If you’ve enjoyed playing it, I’m very happy for you.  Similarly, this is in no way an attempt to insult the hard work of its many talented designers and creators who have worked on it.  I cannot speak to the game’s actual quality – though I do think some of its alien vistas look quite striking.  These comments, and what is to follow, are all based on speculation, and should be treated as such.)

For my part, however, none of the primary criticisms being levelled at Mass Effect: Andromeda have contributed to my complete disinterest in playing it.

Yes, the rubbery faces look silly, and yes, the quality of the dialogue – with lines like ‘My face is tired’ and Ryder’s father’s ham-fisted blather about ‘dreams and ‘dreaming for achievement’ – looks to have taken a dive, but usually I would still be keen.  Throw all the bugs and glitches at me that you want.  I’m deranged enough to have played Dragon Age: Inquisition on an XBox 360; I can deal with some jank in my tank.  In the past I’ve found even an unfinished Bioware game to be more absorbing than most other major releases; I played Dragon Age 2; I can handle a rushed production that makes ninety percent of its locations shoddy re-skins of the same warehouse and stretch of cave.  And I’m certainly not going to be scared off by whatever hateful, rabid conspiracy theory is being cooked up by gamergate trolls to slander Bioware on any given week.  (Gods, I cannot believe how depressing it is to still have to deal with the toxic bilge of gamergate in 2017.)

Mass Effect my face is tired

IMAGE: ‘Sorry, my dialogue is contrived’

But in this case my apathy for the game is tied more to narrative and thematic concerns for both it and the trajectory of the series as a whole – all of which I only seem to be seeing confirmed in the aftermath of the game’s release.

To explain my issues properly I would have to go off on yet another tedious, pedantic rant about Mass Effect 3 – specifically the way that it was already heading in a disheartening direction even before its reprehensible end – and no one (including me) wants that.  Besides, I’ve banged that particular drum plenty of times in the past.  Seriously.

But to offer a quick summary: to me, Andromeda appears to have problems with the basic logic of its plot, and looks to be tackling a problematic theme that I doubt its creators have fully thought through.

Firstly: the plot.

From the information circulated in the marketing, I get the sense that the premise of the new game actively works against it.  While I can sympathise that its creators want to get away from the controversial baggage of Mass Effect 3’s poorly-received conclusion, by choosing to set the story between Mass Effect 1 and 2 (before swiftly blasting the player several hundred years into the future into a different galaxy), the result is that Andromeda’s audience is being asked to suspend not only its disbelief, but the logic of all the preceding games.

Because nothing about this game’s central premise is possible in the universe of Mass Effect between the first and second games.  Here, several arks, stuffed with hundreds of thousands of cryogenically frozen souls are sent on a journey to an as-yet unexplored galaxy in order to populate new worlds; but there seems to be neither any reason to do this, nor any explanation for how this heretofore inconceivable scheme is now occurring.

There is no population crisis driving them to action (nothing is ever mentioned in the original games, where humanity still has room to expand all over the place), nor does it appear to be a failsafe in case the apocalyptic threat of the original games’ antagonists, the Reapers, prove to be real.  (Admittedly, this could be an eventual plot twist in the new game, but again, no one in Mass Effect 2 or 3 ever mentions such a mission).

Moreover, given that the state of the universe at the end of Mass Effect 1 had neither the science, political co-operation, nor resources, to put together an enterprise of such magnitude – and, again, the fact that no such astonishingly expensive, complex, time consuming program was ever mentioned in all of Shepard’s subsequent interactions with the several governments involved – it seems to be a narrative device chosen more out of fear than purposeful storytelling.

Perhaps if the story had been set many hundreds of years after the original trilogy it could have made sense – science might have advanced enough to make what was proposed less preposterous; a new predicament could have been established to justify why such a gargantuan undertaking needed to be; but in an effort to avoid the consequences of Mass Effect 3, the writers appear to have simply jettisoned the logic of their own universe entirely.  And it is hard to invest in a story that has already disrespected your willingness to believe in it before it begins.

But what is most worrisome for me is that theme of colonialisation at the heart of the new game.

Because Andromeda clearly has a precarious narrative tightrope to walk.  These humans are not the upstart, inquisitive underdogs looking for a seat at the grownups table of galactic politics that they were in the original trilogy; here they are invading colonisers.  Humanity is intruding into a new world, looking for lands to populate, and they are involved, almost immediately, in violent exchanges with the present occupants of these lands.  There is a disquieting aroma of imperialism in that set up, one that appears to only intensify when your player character’s father dies and you inherit the role of King.

…I mean, ‘Pathfinder’.

Mass-Effect-Andromeda-Fighting-The-Kett-on-Eos-1036x583

IMAGE: ‘Hello chaps!  I wonder if we might discuss a time-share arrangement?’

Ethically, that is an uncomfortably loaded position to place the player.  In the days of Mass Effect 1 Bioware I would have trusted that an awareness and sensitivity would permeate the writing, exploring the complexities of this premise to tantalising effect.

Unfortunately this project has been led by Mac Walters, one of the two principle writers responsible for Mass Effect 3’s grotesque finale and asinine central plot.  In that game, whether consciously or not, Walters took the myriad possibilities of the original two game’s branching narratives and reduced them into a quest to build a giant spacemagic doohickie that could end war with a pick-a-box of hate crimes.  He took complex philosophical contemplations of cultural diversity, questions of artificial life, free will, and justice, and boiled them all down to a clumsy grey nihilism, producing a text that by its end actively championed mass-murder, mind-control, and forcibly rewriting people’s DNA against their will, all in a thumping, Michael Bay tone of vulgarity and vapidity.

So, to me, watching a writer who literally tried (and catastrophically failed) to put positive spins on genocide, brainwashing, and forced eugenics now handling the nuance of a plot centrally concerned with intergalactic terra nullius sounds dreadful.

And given that Andromeda already appears to be following its predecessor’s mistakes – the writers are lazily rehashing the ‘ancient unknown aliens have left mysterious plot-helpful devices scattered around for mysterious reasons’ story; as mentioned, they leave the majority of the larger plotlines inconclusively hanging – it’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt.  After all, none of those gimmicks worked out so well last time.

And finally, while I’m throwing unjustified shade at the game, I may as well admit that to me it simply doesn’t look that fun to explore.  No doubt I’m wrong – and again, I welcome players to correct this misconception – but from everything I’ve seen so far, I can’t help it.

Andromeda is clearly big – the advertising and pre-release previews incessantly promised environments several times larger than all previous Bioware games – but to me Mass Effect has always been about more than traversing a landscape.  It’s about exploring different cultures, different personalities.  So while this new universe might be physically expansive, it sure looks a lot emptier.

By all accounts the game has jettisoned the entirety of its most idiosyncratic alien species.  There are no appearances from the drell, the hanar, the elcor, the quarians, geth, volus or batarians.  Meanwhile, in their place, only two new additional races are expected to fill the void – one that looks to be cannon fodder; the other like a fairly generic clone of Avatar’s the Na’vi.

So, long, long, long story short: I’m not exactly racing out to buy a copy of Andromeda.

Mass Effect Andromeda bug

IMAGE: Secret third race of new aliens in game: the NoBetaTests

But what all of this recent buzz in the press (both positive and negative) did achieve was to make me nostalgic for the original games: Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.  These works were – and still remain – two of my most beloved gaming experiences, so in light of all my newfound apathy I started to wonder:

How well do they still hold up?

It was a question that was particularly pressing given that I now find it impossible to think back on those experiences without recalling the way in which they ultimately conclude – all that hope and wonder and grace reduced to a spiteful, nihilistic wet thud that its writers presumably thought was profound.

So I decided to revisit the first two games in sequence.  To re-explore them, both with the (relative) fresh eyes of several years distance, and examining – really for the first time – the way in which foreknowledge of the trilogy’s vile ending impacts the experience.

That is what I will therefore be doing over the next few posts: cataloguing my tedious, erratic, distractible, rambling (and yes, long) thoughts on each game.  Pondering what, at least for me, remains of this revolutionary series.  What has dated it, what has tarnished it, but overall, what once made – and still makes – this series so magnificent.

And spoiler alert for the first game: It’s fantastic.

Because it’s all there in that first game.  All of it.  Everything that made the Mass Effect universe great.  Everything that captivates and excites the imagination.  Yes, the sequel’s promise of decisions that carry over from game to game was ripe with possibility; yes, the chance that you could watch entire civilisations change over multiple years, or grow alongside characters that you had fallen in love with was enticing; yes, the hope that game play mechanics would get polished and refined with new instalments tantalised; but returning to that first game, as I have over the past few weeks, provokes a startling revelation: much of what follows Mass Effect 1 is unnecessary.  Or at least, not impactful enough to dull the charms of the original.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting that the sequels should not exist.  Speaking as someone who adores the second game in the series (niggling narrative issues and all), and who even found momentary flashes of greatness in the trilogy’s dumpster fire of a conclusion, the subsequent games clearly have a reason to be.  All I am saying is that in revisiting the first game I have been delighted to discover that although Mass Effect is often spoken of as a trilogy (and now as a trilogy with a weird prequel/sequel/soft-reboot thing poking out of the side of it), in truth everything that made this series so wondrous appears, already fully formed, in the first game.  Some concepts may get fleshed out further in later instalments, the combat might be tightened, and there is a general uptick in the visuals (aside from your own character’s face in game 3), but often, not only does the first Mass Effect perfectly achieve the overarching narrative’s thematic goals, in many ways it articulates its mission statement more eloquently than the series would ever manage again.

But I’ll get to that next time.  For now I’ll just leave my argument unfinished, but overflowing with promises of what’s to come.  Let that tantalise and excite the imagination.  Let it build up impossible expectations that can never realistically be met.

Because, as this wondrous series has proved, that always works out great.

…Right?

Mass Effect title screen maxresdefault

p.s. – I am serious about welcoming people to tell me I’m utterly mistaken about Andromeda.  I highly doubt I will ever play it, but I would be delighted to hear of people’s experiences enjoying the game.

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11 Responses to “Mess Effect: Andyou’reawhatnow?: Foreseeing the Forerunners Foresight (A Mass Effect Retrospective part 1)”

  1. Great post. Andromeda had so much potential to take the series to the next level and, for the most part, it didn’t accomplish that. There was no real reason to release the game now, and I think it could have benefitted so much from another delay or two (or three) to really deliver something that builds upon and expands the greatness of ME2.

    That said, would you like to share your articles in our FB group? We’re a growing community of gaming bloggers and we’re always looking for more great writers to share their work and discuss all things gaming. Just search for “Game Bloggers United” on Facebook. 🙂

  2. Danielle Says:

    Andromeda is a tough game to get my feelings straight about. From the perspective of someone who adored ME1&2 and was left feeling utterly desolate by ME3’s tone-deaf nihilism, I was highly sceptical going into Andromeda, but at the same time, I wanted a reason to fall in love with this universe again. After a 100-hour playthrough… well… I like it, quite a lot. I don’t love it, but it’s got a lot more going for it than the online buzz would have you believe.

    This isn’t to suggest that the problems should be overlooked. At times the writing is cringe-worthy, and certain important scenes in the game (such as the way first contact with the Angarans is handled) are done in such a graceless and ham-fisted manner that I can’t help wondering what could have been if this story had a surer hand to quide it. On the technical side there are issues, but in my entire playthrough I never encountered more than a handful of glitches and never anything game-breaking. The biggest problems for me are the janky facial animations and the lack of facial diversity; it’s utterly inexcusable that in a 2017 game, every Asari in the game bar one (and there are a lot of them) has exactly the same face.

    I’d suggest keeping an open mind though. I know, I know. Hard to do that following the ME3 trainwreck and the tidal wave of hate that has been directed at the game. In my experience, much of the circlejerk surrounding Andromeda is focussed around a few issues early on in the game that have been repeated and amplified beyond any reasonable level. It also doesn’t help that much of the hate seems to be coming from the same crowd that can’t go two seconds without calling someone a cuck, ranting about SJWs, and assuring us that harassing women is an essential step in probing the ethics of game journalism. I don’t mean to suggest that all of the hate is political in nature, but undeniably, much of it is.

    Andromeda has flaws that shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s also a surprisingly fun ride that has much more in common with the first Mass Effect game than either of the sequels. It’s also worth pointing out that a couple of your misgivings aren’t necessarily on the money, but it would be difficult to get into a discussion of them without hitting you with a couple of major spoilers. In brief, the timing (not between 1 & 2, but immediately before the start of 3) and political will to launch the Andromeda Initiative is something that is addressed exceptionally well in a side plot that runs the length of the game, and the lack of Quarians, Drell, Hanar etc. is only a temporary situation – they’re all but certain to appear in future installments, and possibly even as soon as the first DLC.

    The future of this franchise is what really sparks my imagination here. Even with its flaws, Andromeda largely succeeds in setting up a strong foundation to build on, and for the first time in over five years, I’m enthusiastic about what comes next in this series.

    • Thank you so much for the wonderful feedback.

      I can honestly say that nothing I have seen or heard about Andromeda – literally nothing – has gotten me as interested in the game as your comments just have.

      And what intrigues me most is not even the plot stuff that you mention (although I am happy to hear that there is some logic to that peculiar narrative set-up) – it’s what you seem to be saying implying about the game’s tone.

      As I said in the column, I can handle some nonsense and jank, as long as what’s underneath is worth digging for – if it evokes something worthwhile in spite of some superficial flaws. What gnawed at me about ME3 was not its rushed design, bugs, disregarding of choice, and general narrative idiocy, it was – exactly as you mentioned – that it was all in service of a grotesque, arbitrary plot twist that decimated the spirit of its own heretofore magnificent universe.

      My fear has been that Andromeda might be more of the same, in service of equally asinine writing expediencies, so hearing you say that it has helped rekindle some of your love for Mass Effect is very heartening indeed.

      (And yes, sadly it becomes more and more difficult to separate legitimate criticism from maniacs screaming about how the ‘SJW police!’ want to steal their thoughts, and Bioware, for whatever reason, seems to have particularly attracted their psychotic, paranoid ire.)

      • Danielle Says:

        Andromeda is certainly more light-hearted than ME3, that’s for sure. If you’re looking for a tonal equivalent, it’s more in line with the Citadel DLC (though not quite as silly, and with the upside that it doesn’t sit awkwardly alongside a much more serious main storyline).

        I think the differences in approach can most easily be observed by comparing the main character and the ship you explore the galaxy in. Shepard was a battle-hardened N7 vet, hand-picked to save the galaxy; Ryder is just some kid who only gets the big job because of a twist of fate. The Normandy was a state-of-the-art warship; the Tempest is an unarmed exploration vessel crewed by a small, tight-knit group of misfits. The Andromeda Initiative as a whole is not a military organisation, it’s filled with scientists, explorers, people looking for a new life or a bigger challenge – again, misfits. It’s not about saving your home, it’s about finding one.

  3. This was really great. Do you ever share your work on any other film, gaming or entertainment sites?

    • Thanks. Much appreciated. I have a bimonthly column at PopMatters, and appear in the occasional book or journal, but otherwise confine my tedious ranting here.

      • Would you be interested in sharing some of your work on our site? I’m actually a community manager here at moviepilot.com. We’re an open platform, so if you’d be interested in having some of your work featured it’s easy enough for you to do so!

  4. Hi!
    I’m reading your blog since a while but never commented (I’m shy and English is not my first language so it’s a bit difficult for me).

    I share your reserves for Andromeda. I completely feel the same.
    And, for me, there’s also something more: I can’t let Shepard go. Not after the atrocious ME3 endings.
    And I have no desire to meet Ryder.
    I can’t bring myself to care for a new protagonist when the old one is forever trapped in a some kind of fascist nightmare.
    I have no desire to find a new home for humanity: I spent three games trying to save the one we had.
    I have no desire to explore a new galaxy, I saw just a tiny bit of the Milky Way.

    I absolutely loved Shepard and after all this years I still can’t admit the mess that was ME3.
    It’s probably on me, I can understand why the developers want to move on and start anew but I can’t follow them on that path because a part of me is trapped with Shepard in front of “the choices”.

    • Hi Tawais, lovely to hear from you.

      And I’m surprised to hear that English is not your first language, because that was a perfect description of the empty ache that Mass Effect 3 left in its wake. Exactly what I feel also.

      Andromeda might be great (and I’ve heard from people that its not so bad as is widely assumed), but I find that I’m still right there with you.

      What joy is there to be had in buzzing off to a new narrative/galaxy/protagonist when the old one – the one you already fought for and loved – is abandoned to ruin? Left always and forever in the process of burning down?

  5. Andromeda sadly continued the trend for me on which BioWare has embarked since the ME3 ending disaster: Shy away from controversy, make the companions bland and non-threatening and create large worlds with sparse content. Say what you will about ME3 (and I got a ton of negative things to say about it), I felt invested into what was happening and in my companions fate. Up until BioWare destroyed their entire franchise in 15 minutes, I fought tooth and nail to defeat the Reapers and save everybody (foremost Tali and Garrus, admittedly ^^).

    Andromeda? Bleh. I never felt invested in the characters and, paradoxically, neither did they seem to feel invested in their own fate. While ME3 made you feel the desperation of the galaxy and its inhabitants, Andromedas conquistadors seem oddly divested from the impending doom they are about to suffer (starvation, assimilation).

    The only time the characters truly seemed to express strong emotions was when the game went for once for broke and showed their direct reaction to the Kett live dissecting some Salarians. Of course that was what also shot the Kett over the moral event horizon from “misguided zealots” to “too evil to live”.

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