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.

Human Lives Matter: Racial Politics in Fantasy

(Disclaimer: I am not an anthropologist, or a social scientist.)

Black Lives Matter, the most recent crystallization of racial politics in our nation, has prompted me, among other things, to pause and question the use of race in fantasy and science-fiction, to include re-evaluating how I approach fantasy races in my Ahmbren Chronicles books. If I think about the most influential models in fantasy and science fiction which divide characters into races in such a way where racial differences and inherent natures are highlighted, I would look at Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Roddenberry’s Star Trek.

In the real world, civilization has moved through periods of time where it was (wrongfully) asserted that races had different characteristics. In the literature of our past, people of the “negroid race” were called savage. Inferior. Of animal passion.

Biologically, it’s been proven that “race” isn’t actually a thing. There is no such thing as race on a genetic level. The color of our skin is no more an indication of aptitude, character, or morality than the color of our hair or eyes. I share with the author of the linked article that I also didn’t learn that race isn’t “real” in the biological sense until I was in college.

Race is a thing, I would propose, in the social sense. A combination of ethnicity, physical characteristics, and a line of ancestors extending back through particular cultures to particular geographic regions. There is a racial effect, an experience, we all have, and each of our racial experiences are different from the other races. To be Caucasian in the world (anywhere in the world) means we will have a different cause-effect response from the cultural system than if we are Black, or Asian, or Semitic. The level of difference, and whether our race gives us advantage or disadvantage depends on the area of the world. In most instances, being white in Europe or North American presents a certain set of advantages. Being Caucasian in Asia, the Middle-East, or Africa provides an opportunity to be the outsider, with what that might mean across a wide spectrum of experience. To be non-Caucasian in Europe or North America also leads to a different paradigm than if one were Caucasian. So, even though race isn’t real from a biological perspective, it would be false to say it’s not real from an experiential and cultural perspective.

So what does this have to do with fantasy fiction?

First, let’s look at Tolkien and Roddenberry. Two writers who created concepts of race to help define their characters, and two writers who approached it from completely opposite perspectives.

Tolkien took concepts from British and European folklore and solidified them into the foundational tropes of modern fantasy: elves, dwarves, humans, orcs, and halflings. Dungeons and Dragons built on this, and a great many fantasy books, my own included, inherit from this legacy. In Tolkien, race matters. I mean, it matter a lot. The elves truly are better and superior than the other races, simply by virtue of being elves. Dwarves are more susceptible to greed because they are dwarvish (there’s even a view that Tolkien’s anti-semitism manifested in his design of the dwarves, where he stated that they were based off of [his stereotypes about] the Jewish people). Humans are easily corrupted because they are human (which is fine if you think of the problems of mortalkind and the temptations of power, but Tolkien makes this a racial thing… and I’m not even going to get into the fact that Tolkien’s black humans all throw in with Sauron). And Frodo is able to resist the ring’s power long enough to complete the mission because it is a characteristic of hobbits. In summary, though Tolkien did have variance in his characters due to their morale center (e.g., Boromir and Faramir made different choices when it came to the Ring), his characters were defined first and foremost by their race.

Roddenberry took the opposite approach. First, although Star Trek correctly Humans, Klingons, and Vulcans as different species, they are, in my opinion, analogous to races for all practical purposes. Because Star Trek has always been socially aware. Roddenberry deliberately wanted to show the commonality in his races, that no matter how alien they were, they still had faces and eyes that express human emotion. Kirk tells Spock at some point, “We’re all human, Spock.” Roddenberry believed in the shared experience of the soul (my words/interpretation) and the common bond of human experience. In Star Trek, races are much more treated as different cultures (assigned to different physical costuming), but the heroes are heroes because of shared moral values based on a universal philosophy (the needs of the many) rather than by virtue of their race; the villains are villainous because of evil values based on a universal philosophy (disregard for suffering in exchange for personal or political gain) that transcends racial and cultural boundaries. In other words, the characters shape who they are based on choices rather than being defined by their race.

To bring this back to fantasy and my treatment of race in Ahmbren, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with my approach to race. Now that I think about it, I was influenced by Tolkien’s approach. I did not pattern my races on real-world stereotypes, and I believe Ahmbren is more nuanced and socially aware than Middle Earth (I also studied, metaphorically, at the feet of Roddenbery, and wanted to make my elves and orcs more “human” than Tolkien did). But there is still a fundamental racial influence on my characters. When I started building my world, I decided to make each race’s character focused around a question they held to be their ultimate philosophical question. They were as follows:

  • Sidhe (elf): What is beauty? What is perfection?
  • Human: What is useful? What is practical?
  • Ratling: What is profitable? What is negotiable?
  • Gnome: What is possible?
  • Orc: What is heroic?
  • Dwarf: What is valuable? What can I make of value?
  • Troll: What is correct?
  • Seelie (elf): What is natural? What is true?
  • Troglodyte: What can I endure? What can I survive?

This was great from a story-building perspective, because it gave me a guide post on how those races’ cultures interacted, and what inherently motivated the personalities of the characters.

And yet, I’m now bothered by this, at how fundamentally a kind of racism is built into my world. Even if it is with fictional races. Based on the world I’ve built, I can’t just wipe it away and say all those races are the same, because in this world, race has biological reality. Trolls and ratlings are physically different from elves and humans. Sidhe elves cannot cross-breed with humans (biologically incompatible), and this doesn’t even account for the wolven (werewolves) and vampires, which also have racial characteristics that fundamentally shape their character and personality. (If sunlight kills you and you must drink human blood to survive, it will have a definite impact on your personality and character).

At this point, those biological differences are baked into the world design. I could write this off as fiat accompli at this point. Except that in the story, it also presents itself as cultural differences. Which means the reader is going to unconsciously experience the racial differences much the same way we perceive racial differences in the real world: along the lines of culture and ethnicity… because I’ve explicitly made all the races human-like (a la Roddenberry), but perhaps mismatched upon a Tolkienesque structure.

I doing so, I feel I’m doing a disservice to the reader. Why? Why do I think this is dangerous? Because I’m encouraging a mode of thinking, of mental experience, in the reader that reinforces the idea of race (as distinct from culture) as having a defining effect on the moral character, preferences, and aptitude of a person.

And I don’t like that one bit.

How to address this? By having my characters start to challenge this notion. I wrote a scene today where I call out the fundamental racial “Prime Questions”. I attribute that to an in-world philospher, and I allow the character to challenge that. In essence, I took a choice made in world-building, projected that choice into the world as an “understanding” within the world, and in doing so, I can start to change the world from within. (Is there some hidden wisdom in here?)

In this scene, when Tomly states the evidence “is in all our cultures”, I’m deliberately alluding to the logic of Mein Kampf, to state that to judge a person’s inherent worth (genetic or biological) based on any particular culture leads to the ultimate in evil and suffering (i.e., the concentration camps). Although this story doesn’t deal with concentration camps, this “Nazi light” that I’m shining on Tomly is the first indication in the book to Joy that something is fundamentally wrong with him. And although Joy (Meara) doesn’t know of Hitler, or Mein Kampf, the reader may pick up on this. And Joy can recognize the rationale is fundamentally flawed and deceptive. And as her mother, Aradma, said at the end of When Dragons Die: Evil is that which conceals the fundamental truth of the universe. Therefore, this is her first real clue that Tomly is evil (the reader already knows this from the prologue).

Here’s the scene (unedited draft):

“Do you think each race is bound to such a philosophy?” Joy asked. “Those questions were written by a historian. He didn’t include all races, and in the end they are one person’s opinion.” Darklings and wolven were offshoot races of humans, and assigned the same question. Gorgons weren’t known about at the time, and vampires didn’t exist yet. “It’s not as if such ‘Prime Questions’ were prescribed by the gods.” She tucked her hair back behind her ears as if it were distracting her from her work, purposefully revealing her dead eye in the process.

He paused. He frowned. “Yes,” he finally admitted. “I do. I think the evidence is in all our cultures. The kind of civilization we produce flows from our nature.”

She gripped her paintbrush. She wanted to stab him with the pointy end. “Couldn’t our cultures have simply been the natural unfolding of history?” She asked. “The accident of our birth? The circumstances of our peoples? I don’t think those questions are universally binding.”

“You mean we have no inherent nature?”

She took a deep breath. Maybe she could change his mind.

“Everyone has natural tendencies,” she said. “But culture shapes us even more. I think Epiphontiles confused race for culture. Perhaps each person has inclinations and tendencies inherited from their parents.” She pointed to her canvas. “I can paint on white linen or black linen. There’s red linen and blue linen, or any base color I’d like to start with. Perhaps that is race. To a certain extent, the nature of our mortal creature, our bodies, are different. Ratling fur, gorgon eyes, human apishness, troll tusks, elf lifespans… If the color of the linen is my race, the pigments available on my palette is my culture. The brush strokes are my choices. I can be born into other cultures and have a different palette. Queen Seonna’s seelie children have an orcish palette, I would wager. Or I can visit other cultures and add to my palette, like I’m doing now. With enough paint and depending on the choices of my brush strokes, I can paint a dwarven vista on elven linen. Or a human portrait on gnomish linen. So no, I don’t think such questions are racially binding, and in the end I believe we’re all people. The mortal races are all rational with the capacity for choice, and that commonality of spirit runs deeper than the accident of our birth. And at the end of the day, even all the varieties of linen we use starts the same tan color before it’s dyed or bleached to become a canvas.”

So, I hope I’ve planted a seed that allows Ahmbren to grow beyond it’s racially flawed construction. One of the saving graces of Ahmbren is that I’ve set very little in stone about the understanding of the world, and that the understanding reflects the characters’ understanding (of Ahmbren’s history, religion, or metaphysics). Thus as characters grow and change, the understanding and experience of Ahmbren can also change without destroying the integrity of Ahmbren herself.

Ultimately, this is one of the things I enjoy most about fantasy writing and world building. It allows me an avenue to continually grow and examine my own beliefs and views, challenging them from multiple angles.

Until next time!

Kyle