In a spirit similar to all of Star Trek until Contact, Forbidden Planet until Eve Online, Mass Effect: Andromeda begins with the great conceit that opportunities and possibilities exist far beyond the horizon that we like to dream of. The game’s opening is as inspiring as it is ambitious, full of suspense and fosters the embrace of a free-spirited, open mind.
The promise to move through the universe like a ‘Pathfinder’, akin to intrepid explorers like Sir Francis Drake or Lewis and Clarke, is one that evokes just the right mix of excitement, fear and responsibility. Thanks to the exploration efforts of our ancestors, the low price of jet travel, and the speed and ubiquity of Internet access, our Earth has given up most of its secrets. It’s no surprise, then, that any opportunity to penetrate a new frontier, fictional or otherwise, is highly enticing.
A certain character, someone who is important to the setting Andromedas early tone, sums up the idea:
“I’ve chosen you all to join the Pathfinder team, not just because you are talented and passionate. But because you are dreamers like me. We dream of exploring the unknown, finding the edge of the map and then discovering what lies beyond.”
So far good then. Mass Effect: Andromedas The problem is, however, that it tells there is potential greatness and majesty all around you, but it comes a long way from actually delivering such an experience. Where the opening premise is laid out in a way that seems limitless, your interactions put you on a course that usually feels predetermined and without spectacle.
The root cause of this glib greatness is the way you interact with non-player characters (NPCs). As protagonist Sara/Scott Ryder, the dialogue, your available conversation options, and the topics and questions you’re asked to respond to leave almost no room for ambiguity. Without ambiguity, there is little room for personal interpretation of events, and that makes this supposedly infinite universe very small indeed.
Even the dialogue quoted above, for example, represents a case where you… told how you should think about your position instead of creating a scene that you can interpret for yourself.
For example, key alien characters you meet early on are so direct in their first interactions with you that it’s impossible to come up with anything but the most clichéd understanding of their existence. There is the aggressive one who kills first and questions later, the friendly one who uses her quick wit to get her way, and the cold, logical one who has no time for sentiment or subjectivity.
Here we are in a previously unexplored galaxy and yet we’re still surrounded by the same character figures, presented in the same way big, dumb blockbusters have been relying on ever since. command made it hip to enjoy garbage. This approach to character presentation is no way to promote open-mindedness about the future of humanity.
NPCs are just dumb nodes that advance your journey
The dialogue, and your position in it, is at its worst when you need something specific from someone. The writing team seems unable to combine credible conversation with the gameplay needed to give the player a chance to achieve a certain result.
There is an exchange that takes place within the first few hours on the planet Eos, in which you come across a small settlement that has been abandoned except for a single man, Clancy Arquist, who is holed up in a building for his own protection. He is incredibly afraid of turning on the power and luring aggressive aliens to his position.
From behind his closed door, Clancy responds to your request to turn the settlement back on.
Clancy: “If you turn the power relay back on, they’ll know there’s a juicy target living down here.”
You: “Is it smarter to hide and hope, or take a chance that could save the entire planet?”
Clancy: “I remember people talking like that. Okay, I’ll turn on the generators. If you want to poke the tiger, it’s up to you.’
And that’s it. A single line of questionably written Socratic irony waves a man who seconds ago was adamant that the best course of action was to remain locked in seclusion, with the power off.
It makes you feel like Clancy only exists as an officer to get you from one point in the mission to the next; turn on a node so that you can continue your journey.
That, of course, is exactly what he is. But so often in these types of games, it’s possible to determine the quality of the writing by how well it masks the fact that you’re just interacting with countless NPC nodes on your way to the finale.
All of these characters have specific roles to push you toward your goals, but it’s up to the writing team to skillfully make it seem like these individuals have a history and a reason for being outside of your interaction.
Just feeling like you’re talking to someone about his or her own life is enough to make you see them as a sentient entity as opposed to an artificial one. Bring enough believable characters into your world and your world suddenly feels vast, as if the universe and its inhabitants aren’t just waiting for you to interact with them.
That doesn’t happen way too often Mass Effect: Andromeda. And worse, it often feels like no attempt was even made to make it happen. Nothing in the game can stop you from suspending your disbelief.