We bring you a guest post from Matthew Wheatley, recent MFA Creative Writing graduate and co-founder of Chapman University’s interdisciplinary journal, Anastamos. In his piece, he tackles the differences between Mass Effect: Andromeda and the rest of the franchise – the changes in tone, the new dialogue system, and other things in-between.
We hope you enjoy his analysis of Mass Effect: Andromeda.
SPOILER WARNING: Important story and gameplay details will be discussed below. Proceed at your own risk.
To say that the reception to Mass Effect: Andromeda was polarizing would be an understatement. It endured a barrage of criticism from both professional reviewers and laymen alike, mostly centering around its story, characters, and presentation. While I will not go into its lack of polish in its presentation (and a lack of polish it has, though that has somewhat been corrected in later patches), I want to dive into the narrative of the game. Given how much of a Mass Effect game is centered around its narrative, there is a lot to be learned from what works, what doesn’t, and why.
One of the biggest criticisms of ME:A at launch (aside from facial animations) was its “bad writing.” When reviewers compared the narrative to those of the previous entries in the series, this game came up lacking. While I would agree that the story is not as compelling as the original ME, and the Kett are not as interesting as the Reapers, I believe that biggest thing that people picked up on and declared “bad writing” was the dramatic shift in tone.
In the original trilogy (aside from the Citadel DLC in ME3), the entire series is taken deathly seriously from start to finish. Everyone in the entire galaxy is at risk of being ground up into a paste and turned into giant machines that will destroy the next generation of sentient life, and Shepard is the only one who can stop it. Almost everything is taken seriously and expects to be taken seriously by the audience. ME:A, on the other hand, doesn’t take itself as seriously. It has its darker moments, but on the whole, its characters, plot points, and ideas aren’t treated with as much weight as in the original trilogy.
An example of this shift in tone can be seen in how ME:A and ME3 use children. In ME:A, Gil and Ryder have a heartfelt, though lighthearted, conversation about the desire to have and necessity of having children in a colonial situation, ending with the idea that, “the biological imperative is kind of a bummer.”
In ME3, a reaper blows up a ship with a child on it to show the horrors of war and that no matter how hard Shepard tries, he/she cannot save everyone.
Aside from that difference, Liam’s loyalty mission is legitimately played to comedic effect. It goes beyond even being less serious to actually making jokes.
While it would be easy to say that this shows that ME3 is better written than ME:A, because the ME3 scene has more emotional punch, this isn’t necessarily the case. A lighter tone can still be good for what it is. I would say that ME3 is in fact better written than ME:A, but just because ME3 is better doesn’t mean that ME:A is bad. A lighter tone, if it’s consistent, can still be enjoyable and a good choice, and ME:A plays itself lighter all the way through. It’s not that the writing in ME:A is so much worse than the original trilogy, it’s just different. On top of this, I would argue that the lighter tone not only works but was also necessary for ME:A considering how it came about.
When ME3 released and fans hated the ending, BioWare had a major problem on their hands. The ending basically destroyed one of their flagship franchises and kept them from being able to move forward with new games in it. If they tried to make a game after the Reaper saga, they would be forced to choose a canonical ending that would be forever tied to fans’ feelings about the ending of ME3. Would there be AI? Did Shepard take away the Reapers? Is everyone green? And BioWare couldn’t really go back in time since humanity had only been a part of the wider galactic community for a few decades, with no major conflicts to draw from (the First Contact War and Skyllian Blitz being too short and small). The only solution to continue the franchise would be to instead of moving forward or backward in time, move as far as you could laterally. Hence, going to the Andromeda galaxy, and leaving in between ME2 and 3.
ME:A contains all of this baggage from the moment it starts. It has its own in-canon reasons for everyone going to Andromeda (to explore, escape the Reapers, start a new life), but none of it is as obvious, and to be quite frank, truthful, as the out-of-cannon reason of the developers needing to avoid the ending of ME3. If the game tried to take itself as seriously as the original trilogy, players would be more encouraged to ask serious questions. If, for instance, there was a sequence where Ryder witnesses colonists starving to death because they cannot grow enough food, the player is much more likely to ask why everyone came here than if there is just a small protest next to hydroponics. And if they start asking these kinds of questions, the out-of-cannon reason will always be more prominent than the in-cannon ones, taking the player out of their immersion and making the whole narrative seem flimsy and full of plot holes.
Considering the situation in which it was made, ME:A made the right choice to be less serious in order to keep players immersed in an arguably less emotionally fulfilling, but still enjoyable and consistent, experience. Does it have its share of bad lines? Of course. Is it as well written as the previous games? Probably not. But it is well written for what it is and needs to be: a lighter game that doesn’t ask for its narrative to be taken too seriously.
DIALOGUE AND CHOICE
One mechanic that the developers were touting in the lead-up to its release was the new dialogue system. Gone were the days of paragon and renegade. Now the series would have a four-way dialogue system. For all of its benefits, the paragon and renegade system was not without its faults. Its dual nature more or less forced players to only choose one side, especially in ME2. All decisions, from dialogue to major plot choices, were made for you based on which one lined up with which kind of Shepard you were playing. This took much of the thinking out of what to choose and made each interaction less engaging. On top of that, the middle dialogue choice was virtually pointless since it there was no gameplay benefit to choosing it. A third of the dialogue choices would never be used.
In light of this, a revamping of the dialogue system to one that was more freeform would be a welcome change. Unfortunately, this is not how the dialogue in ME:A plays out. Instead of offering you four distinct ways to react, in almost all conversations it only offers you two. The dialogue choices that you are actually given are either emotional and logical or casual and professional. Instead of being a four-way dialogue system, it is another two-way system of emotional/casual and logical/professional, only with much lower stakes than paragon and renegade.
While this is a disappointment, the lower stakes at least free the player up from feeling the need to choose only one side. In this way, the player is free to choose the emotion that fits better with the characters and moment, much like how real people don’t always react with one emotion. Hopefully, if there are any future installments, the developers will lump emotional/casual and logical/professional together like they want to be, and introduce two more kinds of reactions so that this system can become the great system that it wants to be.
One part of the new system that plays out like it should is the separation of major choices from the dualistic dialogue choices. In Andromeda, it gives you the choices without any other sort of gameplay instruction on which choice means what. This makes each choice feel much more meaningful and makes it much more difficult to decide what to do. In the moment of making the decision, there is much more engagement than in previous entries because each choice must be made on its own without anything else telling you what to do.
Unfortunately, this system is not perfect either, as nearly none of your decisions have any impact on the ending. They all feel impactful in the moment, but by the time that you get to the end, you realize that there was almost no appreciable difference in the outcomes of what you chose. In fairness, your choices throughout the original Mass Effect didn’t have a huge impact on that game’s ending either. It’s not like if you made a string of good decisions you could save both humanity and the council. But still, I would expect more from the fourth game in the franchise. There may be more impact to the decisions if the series progresses, but as it stands now, decisions feel very important in the moment, but less and less so as time goes on.
One of, if not the, best new additions to the Mass Effect franchise in Andromeda is one of the smallest: ambient squad banter in the Nomad. Ever so often when you are driving around in the Nomad, the two squadmates you chose to come with you will start talking amongst themselves about their pasts, their hopes, their opinions, and whatever else comes to mind. These moments do wonders for not only building my connection to my squadmates, but building their characters as well. Part of this comes from how well written and entertaining most of it is, but part of it also comes from the spontaneity of it.
For as much as talking to your squadmates after missions does to learn more about the characters and become closer to them, it can become a bit formulaic. You walk up to them, ask questions until they’re all greyed out, and leave. It’s effective, but can get a little familiar and chore-ish. The ambient dialogue, on the other hand, comes without you being the one to initiate it. I didn’t ask Jaal to tell me about his lost love. He just told me of his own volition.
That spontaneity makes the interactions much more engaging. Since there isn’t a preview of the dialogue to select, I have to keep listening to even know where the conversation is headed. Each interaction commands my full attention.
In addition, through hearing the characters interact with one another, you get a better sense of what their personalities are like. Listening to Peebee annoy Cora isn’t only entertaining, but helps me get a better understanding of Peebee’s lackadaisical attitude and Cora’s professional demeanor. And when they start to have more of a mutual respect and understanding as the game progresses, those emotions and positions get more layered and interesting. It works wonders to help flesh out the characters.
However, this, like much of Andromeda, isn’t perfect. There are two issues with this system, one inherent to it and another coming from the execution. The inherent problem is that it is impossible to hear all of the dialogue. Since you can only hear one pair of squadmates at a time, and since each character’s dialogue changes based on who else is in the Nomad, I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out on something really cool by not bringing a different squad or keeping my current squad for longer. This isn’t a major problem, but considering how good of a job it does to flesh out the characters, it’s unfortunate that we can’t hear all of it.
The larger problem, and the one that is fixable, is that there were numerous times when my squadmates would start talking, only to be interrupted and cut off by SAM telling me something that was already on my HUD, like how “this area can be mined for resources.” It was annoying the first time and only gets more annoying as I became more invested in hearing what my squadmates have to say. And if SAM cuts them off, you’ll never hear that dialogue again. This is a fixable problem, and it really needs to be fixed.
Those problems aside, this really is a fantastic system for growing the characters and your connection to them, and hopefully in any future titles it will be beefed up improved upon.