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.

Escaping the Cycle: Battlestar Galactica vs. Mass Effect

I’ve talked in the past about my love-hate relationship with SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica. I decided to give it another change and did a full re-watch through the four seasons. The overall verdict is that I liked the series even more, including the last season, than I did the first time, with the exception of the last episode. The last episode, I hated even more than I did before. Common complaints with the ending had to do with the whole “I see angels” and deciding for the viewer how God was supposed to be seen in the show. This time around, however, my complaints take a different angle.

This got me to thinking about another epic sci-fi story with a controversial ending: Mass Effect. Both stories are essentially the same: a repeating cycle of machines rising up against the organic life that created them. Across the galaxy, civilization after civilization rises up and falls to the same fate: the machines destroy their creators. In both stories, a key theme is: how do we break the cycle? It’s a sci-fi version of the wheel of karma, the cycle of rebirth and death. In other words, how do we achieve moksha, a future where organic life can survive past technological singularity?

People complained about both endings. For Mass Effect, folks complained that the choices didn’t matter in the end. I disagree with this interpretation of the Mass Effect ending, and I’m going to contrast it with Battlestar Galactica (BSG) to make an argument that Mass Effect’s (ME) ending was, in fact, quite good. And the final choice in the game has substantially different implications.

(SPOILERS to follow)

At the end of BSG, the last episode does pose the question: how do we break the cycle? They find a new planet (our Earth) on which to colonize and survive, and they make the decision to blend in with the natives, scatter themselves over the planet, and eschew their technology by launching their fleet into the sun. The choose to start over with a stone age existence.

The end of ME also has a loss of technology: the network of jump gates get destroyed, presumably making interstellar travel either impossible, or much more difficult. In the case of ME, this loss of advanced civilization is a side effect, not deliberately chosen. Also, each solar system still has space age technology. Two of the three choices made at the end of ME carries the lessons learned into the future and truly breaks the cycle. One choice is ambiguous. More on this in a minute.

Coming back to BSG, the only thing they accomplish is to accept humans and cylons living together and procreating together, and the implication that they’ll interbreed with the indigenous human population. But they also make a deliberate choice to “start over” and “wipe the slate clean”. There’s one problem with that: the entire series has established “all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.” If they don’t carry any lessons learned forward, why would they expect different results.

To add insult to injury, in the final scene of the series has the Baltar and Six angels talking together in modern-day Earth. Baltar-angel asks Six-angel if the cycle will repeat, and she’s optimistic this time. Why? No fracking good reason whatsoever. She says, “law of averages. If we do this enough, we’ll eventually be surprised.” Well, why didn’t that apply before? This sounds insane: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” My biggest gripe is this: I felt BSG was, in the end, an utter tragedy. No lessons were carried forward, and my takeaway is that they’re doomed to repeat the cycle. To amplify my point, the fact that they chose to link their story to present-day Earth was self defeating. If they wanted to make the argument that lessons were remembered and carried forward, even at a genetic level, they would have had to show how humans were fundamentally different… but they didn’t. One of the strengths of the show was how human and relatable their characters were. Caprica before the fall is very much like modern day Earth. So, the cycle repeats itself.

The second big gripe I have that adds to the tragic feel of the show. They talk about how love (with familial love being as or more important than romantic love) was key to their breaking the cycle (because apparently procreation was key somehow… that’s never explained), but then they scatter. The hardest part for me was Lee’s father going off to be alone, and Lee seemingly alone at the end. All those talks about family, and bonds… it’s like they all abandoned their hearths with each other (excepting some characters like Helo and Athena, and Caprica and Baltar). I guess the solitude of the Adamas was hard to swallow, and frankly I found it somewhat unbelievable after the way the series built their characters.

The failure of the final episode, I believe, is in the writing. The entire series was brilliant, and my impression is that the writers weren’t consciously trying to make it a tragedy. All in all, the BSG finale just seems like a tragic accident.

Turning to ME, the player is given three choices at the end, when presented a somewhat similar problem: how to break the cycle. Any choice he makes will have the side effect of destroying the jump gates. To not choose is to allow the machines to continue the cycle and harvest/destroy all advanced organic life. People complained that the three choices were superficial, involving a “blue-green-red” palette swap for the end scenes. This, however, isn’t true. The choices are fundamentally different (and this was more apparent in the revised endings). The choices presented are:

  1. Blue (control): Become one with the reapers (the machines in question). Your consciousness gets uploaded into the reapers and you become a reaper yourself, transforming their consciousness with yours. You then have the power to choose to stop the cycle, because you control the other reapers. You become, in essence, a god, and watch over the galaxy to prevent the cycle from happening again.
  2. Green (synthesis): You have the choice to blend synthetic and organic life… and through the reaction during the jump gates destruction, this effect is carried to all aspects of the galaxy. You die, but every other living being becomes a synthetic-organic hybrid, removing the distinction between synthetic and organic life.
  3. Red (destruction): You die, but you destroy all synthetic life and artificial intelligence throughout the galaxy. The cycle may or may not repeat itself, but organic life continues past the point of singularity, knowing and remembering what happened. This is the most uncertain of all fates, but it’s not a “start again and hope for different results.”

In order to not repeat the past, the starting conditions have to be different. The biggest thing is: what’s changed, what’s different from the last time we started this cycle? In ME, each choice offers a different set of starting conditions. BSG did not.

The BSG writers effectively made no choice… they wanted their cake and ate it too, essentially mapping their ending on the “no choice” ME ending (which was also available: if you choose to not choose, the final AI kills you and the cycle continues… the reapers harvest and wipe out humanity and all the other space faring races).

If the blue/green/red choices were mapped on to BSG, this is how it could have happened:

  1. Blue (control): Kara Thrace (or other suitable character, but I pick Starbuck in an effort to undo the stupid “she’s an angel” thread) becomes a cylon and merges consciousness with the base ship. She transcends consciousness and guides the base ships away, watching humanity’s development from afar. Some cylons live with humans and interbreed, and human civilization continues, with technological and philosophical lessons learned. Maybe it becomes possible for human consciousness to be uploaded into synthetic brains, transcending mortality and blurring the lines between synthetic and organic. There’s a fundamental recognition that machines are just as conscious as organics.
  2. Green (synthesis): I’m… gonna go with Kara again. But maybe Hera could have worked as well. One of them accomplishes something that causes all synthetics to share organic properties (although one could already argue they do) and that all humans get cylon bio tech as part of them (just like they did with the ship itself towards the end). Or a simpler way to achieve this would have been to have them settle in peace and intermarry, with they implication that in time, all their descendants were hybrids. They almost achieved this in the series, excepting that they decided to forget everything.
  3. Red (destruction): This was the ending I was hoping for, because I thought it would have been bold. The humans come to the conclusion that software is just software in the end, convincing simulations of personality but not actually sentient. They find a way to destroy all cylons, and there is no continuation of the hybrid line. The humans settle on the new world. They remember the sins of the past. In some ways, they’d already learned this lesson in the colonies by abandoning AI, and networked computer technology. That solves the problem of singularity. Only this time, they don’t have the threat of the cylons coming home to destroy them, because they’re all dead. In other words, it’s a purely simple military victory.

So, after the second watch through (which had the benefit of having played the full ME trilogy by that point), I feel like the writers of BSG and ME were trying to address the same problem: how to solve the cycle of technological singularity and escape the doom of machines rising up to destroy the organics. It feels like the BSG writers ran out of time to parse through the options, present them distinctly to the viewers, and have their characters choose one. ME did a better job of this.

Until next week,