Mass Effect: Andromeda

(SPOILER FREE) So, months after it released, I’ve finally gotten in to Mass Effect: Andromeda. As an unabashed fan of the original trilogy, I had preordered it and been salivating at the chance to get back into the ME world until a week before its release. But then I bought into the negative release hype, disappointed with what I was seeing regarding facial animations, and in protest returned to a mostly unplayed Witcher 3 instead. I got sucked into Witcher 3 and took my time with it, deciding to finish its main storyline (and not rush it) before I came back to Andromeda.

Now that I’m over 10 hours into it, past the prologue, colonized the first world, and exploring the stars, I think I have a good feel for the game. Bottom line up front: For an unsuccessful game with some flaws if we’re being fair, it’s very good. I would say that this is the “Star Trek” side of the series, compared to the “Star Wars” side that the original trilogy served up. There’s definitely the basis of “boldly going where no Milky Way person has ever gone before” from the first scenes in the game.

There are times when I wonder if my age affects how I view video games. I’m a Gen-Xer, and when I first got into video games, ANYTHING that made pixels on a screen move because of a controller input was MAGIC to me. OMG, how much time I spent on Defender on the Atari, Dungeons and Dragons on the Intellivision, or Ultima IV on an Apple ][. Stick figures and 7-color sprites fired the imagination. Of course by now, that’s no longer the case… I won’t waste time on games where I feel like I’m fighting the interface, or that I need to “practice”. I don’t do well with ‘twitch’ games, or hard mode, or multiplayer games. I want an immersive experience, and so now I’m very choosy on what I commit to.

On the other hand, I have the perspective of the road behind, which younger players may not have. They expect a level of graphical excellence as a norm, and have very little tolerance for technical imperfections. I look at a game like Andromeda and the things they get right immediately hit my nostalgia buttons to the point where, “Oh man, if I had seen this when I was growing up this would have blown my mind and made me fail out of high school.”

So, my judgment of video games is imperfect. If I like it, it must be a good game because it’s doing something right to get through my “I’ve played too many games filter”. On the other hand, my indicator of whether I think it’s a good game is: “Did I like it?”

So with that in mind, the flaws. The biggest is the wooden character faces (even after their patches), which is a letdown after coming off the Witcher 3.It’s unfortunate the alleged drama and abandonment of resources/support by the company for the studio making it, which is most visibly seen in stiff or awkward character facial animations. There are other flaws too, the biggest being that the game executes everything well, but very little to the outstanding level.

In spite of all that, it’s the overall blend that serves up an expansive space faring experience. If the original trilogy was a Star Wars – esque experience in the ME universe, then this is a Star Trek -esque experience. Or maybe a bit of Farscape. But, it’s a world that blooms slowly, as the pace of a multi-season sci-fi TV show and not at the pace of a blockbuster movie. So far, the journey is worth it.

I’m not going to get into a systematic look at each feature of the game. I wanted to capture the positives that I’ve noticed, that have made me take a step back from the game while I’m playing it and note that, “Wow. I’m really enjoying the heck out of this. It’s an immersive sci-fi galactic space exploration experience that I don’t think I’ve seen before in a video game.” It does some things better than the original Mass-Effect trilogy.

Disclosure: I am a passionate fanboy of the original ME trilogy. To this day, I think it’s the grandest computer RPG ever made. I didn’t hate the original ending, but the expanded endings they published were immensely more satisfying.

The original ME trilogy had the impending sense of Reaper doom looming over your head. It created an epic war movie, reminiscent of LotR In Space. Actually, more like Lovecraft in space… the Reapers were existential threats to all civilizations across the galaxy, and they looked like giant squids in space, so yes. Lovecraftian.

With Andromeda, we get a different premise. It’s a massive colonization effort to a galaxy. It starts with the threat that all pioneers and explorers face: things go wrong. Where you’re going isn’t what you thought it would be. Gradually, layers of problems are added as the game grows from pure survival to first contact, and understanding the situation into the new galaxy.

In some ways, the threat (at least at this stage in the game) is less immediate. I can see something big looming on the story horizon, but it’s not in our face quite yet. The sense of urgency is about survival, and making smart choices (e.g., develop military or science?) as things unfold.

As I move around the galaxy map, even for things as simple as mining for minerals, I find this game communicates the vastness of space a bit more than the original trilogy. Not to say it wasn’t there in the original, but there’s some je ne sais quois that hits right. I like the fact that I get the feel, each at different times in the game, of “being on a star ship and talking to my crew”, “walking through space stations and getting a glimpse into station life”, “driving with a rover around alien terrain”, “exploring with the space ship around many star systems”, sci-fi combat, sci-fi weird alien exploration, drama, and romance, and all that stuff.

Did the original ME have all that? For sure. But so far in this one, there’s a more, I don’t know, feeling of hope and the decision to cling to hope and determination in the face of the unknown.

Maybe it’s just me, but it’s scratching my gaming itch right now.

This is NOT the kind of game you can have on a list of games to “get through.” Meaning, if you’re looking to get through this game so you can get to another game, you probably won’t enjoy it. It’s the perfect game for just having finishing something else, and you have MONTHS before you see anything else you want to play. Give it 10 hours to unfold, and then spend the next few months relaxing into the experience of exploring a new galaxy and all the different facets that entails. And, you have to relax into the first several hours of “talk to everyone on the Nexus” before you get the freedom of your own starship.

Star Trek vs. Star Wars. Yeah, that’s probably the best way I can think about it.

Overall, I give this game a B+. Yes, the faces are wooden. The animations can be wonky. The lighting on the characters are off at times. Nevertheless, it’s still a big, juicy game that simply leaves me with a childlike sense of galaxy exploring wonder as I go through it.

Oh, and on top of all that, I’m playing a gunslinging/melee ninja that can create miniature black holes over opponent’s heads with the power of my mind. So, there’s that.

Villain Crafting: You don’t come for the Dark Lord; he comes for you!

I wrote a few months back about how the latest Hobbit movie, the Desolation of Smaug, fumbled the dragon’s portrayal a bit at the end and presented him as a bumbler. There’s a certain art to portraying a villain in a way that communicates emotional impact on the audience. Peter Jackson’s opening with Smaug was fantastic; the scene flew off the rails.

More months back, I talked about crafting dark lords. Continuing with both these thoughts, I’d like to analyze the video game, Diablo III, as an example of how your narrative presentation undermines any feelings of fear or dread for the villain.

I’ve recently picked up Diablo III again as we get closer to the release of the expansion set. I absolutely love the gameplay, artwork, story, and overall cohesion of the package. There’s one huge flaw, however. The character of Diablo, Demon Lord of Terror, is anything but terrifying. Blizzard narrated the story in such a way that he evoke no terror at all, and comes across in the end as rather pathetic. That’s probably not the goal for the audience the writer has in mind when architecting a dark lord.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy both the Hobbit movies and Diablo II immensely. These analyses are not intended to say these are bad works of art, but rather to examine and learn. So, what did Blizzard do wrong to make Diablo (the character) seem pathetic (in an otherwise awesome game)? Diablo certain looks terrifying, appears menacing, has a great booming voice, and lots of powers to overcome. And he’s huge and hard to kill… what went wrong?

It’s the plot itself that drives Diablo to a veneer of theatrical fear rather than any actual terror. Throughout the entirety of the game, you (the player hero) are hunting the demon lords. Diablo is your prey when it should be the other way around. Your character never shows fear (the sorceress is downright flippant and assured of her destiny to defeat Diablo). Your character seems completely removed from the horror that’s going on around them. The consistent message throughout the game is that Diablo is scary for everyone else, but not for you. Diablo’s scared of you, and you’re going to go kick his ass.

In Act 1, it starts well enough. You go to Tristram to investigate the falling star. After starting to discover that the demon lords have returned to the lands, you move to Act 2 and defeat Baal. It’s still fairly ok, as far as plot goes. Baal toys with you, and you’re not sure yet whom the enemy is in Act 2, until towards the end. You defeat Baal and move on to Act 3, where it falls apart.

In Act 3, you start defending the keep against the demon armies of the Lord of Gluttony. The first mistake is that the Lord of Gluttony starts appearing before you throughout the act, telling you how insignificant you are, and how mighty his armies are. But every time he appears it’s because you just buck-slapped what he threw at you. You take out one of his lieutenants, and he appears and says, “RAR! But you won’t stand a chance against the next guy!” And then you buck slap the next guy and Azmodan appears again, and it’s like, “NO, RAR! For REALZ this time, I mean it. U gonna die beyatch.”

So then you buck-slap Azmodan and chase Diablo into Act 4, where the formula is repeated. Diablo’s armies are invading heaven and you go to stop them, yet it feels like he and his armies are rats scurrying off a sinking ship, and you’re the monster coming to get them. You chased them out of the world, and then through hell, and now it’s like heaven is the last place they can hide. So they run there, and you chase them there. You close one of the waygates they’re using to invade heaven, and Diablo talks to you and says, “Do you think that’s the only one? I have another waygate!” (Or something to that effect).

At which point I put my mouse down for a moment, looked up from the game to the ceiling and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Diablo’s just a whiny, petulant bitch. I almost feel sorry for her.” (He’s a she in this game).

It’s almost like the script goes something like:

 

  • Diablo: If you follow me, I’m gonna send Big Baddie 1.
  • Hero follows and kills Big Baddie 1.
  • Diablo: Wha? Um. Ok, leave me alone, or Big Baddie 2 is coming for you.
  • Hero kills Big Baddie 2. “Yeah? Whatchyougot, D-man? D-woman? What are you these days, BTW?”
  • Diablo: “Don’t make fun of me, it’s not nice. Please go away.”
  • Hero: “No.”
  • Diablo: “Well, Big Baddie 3, and my armies are gonna—”
  • Hero: “What armies? I’ve destroyed all your armies.” SMACK. “And killed that guy too.”
  • Diablo: “Wait, Big Baddie 3 wasn’t suppose to die! Oh come on, just leave me alone. I’ve no where else to go now.”
  • Hero: “No, I’m coming for you.”
  • Diablo: “That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Ok, well, you can’t possibly face my wrath. I will end you. RAR RAR RAR. I’m coming for you!”
  • [doope dooopee doooo… Diablo hides and waits for you….]
  • Hero: “I thought you were coming for me, Diabs. No? Well, find, I’ll go get you then.”
  • Hero buck-slaps Diablo. “Well, that was easy. I mean, I was never in danger, I guess.”

Ok, yes, the hero dies in the game and you resurrect. I’m not saying I never died, because it’s a video game. But the narration leaves something to be desired in portraying a big bad as being scary.

How might we fix it? Well, there’s a certain artificiality in a video game like this one. You go through levels, kill demons, and eventually kill the Big Bad Foozle at the end. That framework channels the narrative somewhat. However, Azmodan and Diablo should never have wasted time taunting you. You should come across as an unimportant speck, barely worthy of their attention. The amount of attention they give you betrays their weakness and fear of you, a mere mortal. (Ok, a nephilim, but they don’t seem to fear the Archangels, so why fear you?)

The formula in Lord of the Rings works. Sauron is coming for all of them, and even at Minas Tirith you get the feeling that their victory will be futile against Sauron in the long run (they lost their undead army). Frodo is just too insignificant to capture Sauron’s notice. Frodo’s not fighting his way to Mount Doom. He’s forced to go there, and escaping his way there, narrowly avoiding death at every turn.

Ok, what else might a game like Diablo do differently? If transitions between Acts could feel like escapes more than pursuits. Or, if somehow the state of the world got worse in each act, until you finally pull victory out of your butt by the end, along with some luck. A feeling of “That was a close call!” is missing, and could have added to the effect.

Or… if we’re not retreating in each Act, the world needs to feel worse with each Act. We should feel the desperation of losing… winning the battle in the Act but losing the war/world overall. Instead, I feel like I saved the first land, saved the second land, and keep pushing back the darkness. The darkness is “thicker”, but that’s because I’m going into it and taking the battle to them. Instead, I’d like to feel like the world’s losing with each act, until the end. (Mass Effect did a very good job of this, btw).

I’m not saying Diablo’s game formula is bad. A different game I love, same formula, was Sacred 2. But in that game, there was no overall feeling of fear or terror… nor did there need to be. You weren’t fighting “The Lord of Terror.”

So, what are our takeaways when crafting dark lords?

  1. Be mindful in how, and in how much, you show your dark lord. The more attention they give the protagonist, the more they take them seriously. If you don’t manage “why” they’re taking them seriously, it can come across that they fear the hero.
  2. The dark lord should be winning throughout the story, until the end. Don’t make it feel like the dark lord is always, always retreating. Because then, hey! We know everything’s gonna turn out okay.
  3. Heroes need to run/escape to survive at times. (This happens in some games… ME missions where you have to get in, get out, and not get noticed by the person you can’t yet face). There has to be moments where if the hero were to be brash, they would die. (Frodo tried to confront a ring wraith. That ended badly).
  4. The Dark Lord can’t threaten the same formula on the hero that the hero’s already overcome time and again. (e.g., “RAR, but my NEXT big bad evil champion will get you, you’ll see!”)

Ok folks, hope you enjoyed another look at villain crafting. (And Diablo fanboys, don’t get your knickers in a wad. I love that game, and critiquing something doesn’t mean it’s bad).

Until next time!
Kyle