I recently finished the newest game in the Mass Effect series, Andromeda it is called, due to the fact that it is in the galaxy of Andromeda. Which funnily enough was pretty much the only way they could have a game set after the third Mass Effect chronologically, since (trying to avoid spoilers, but seriously if you are at all interested in game stories, go play all of Mass Effect right now) it would be kind of hard to have any game based in the Milky Way due to the player being able to effect the fate of every living creature there in a few distinct ways, making future stories in our home galaxy… a tad tricky.
So onto the actual point of this rant that I will pretend is an informed and thought out stance on things. While I really enjoyed Andromeda, thought it was a fun game with a reasonably good story, there was something that I felt was missing, or maybe lacking is the more appropriate word.
You see there is a certain structure to things that has developed with Bioware games (the people who make the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series, for all those who don’t know). Given the fact that they are, at least partially, RPG games, you get party members throughout the story, people who help you on your quest to save whatever world/cluster/galaxy you may be saving. And at some point you have to do some sort of loyalty mission, or quest that primarily revolves around them.
This is great, the missions that are to do with a specific companion are almost always my favourite ones. But while Andromeda does have some enjoyable companion missions, I feel like most of them are missing a rather fundamental thing that makes me remember those quests so fondly from the other Bioware games, and makes me see them as a great display of the character who it’s for.
That is a shame because in Andromeda when the characters loyalty missions rolled around (the things I always look forward to in Bioware games), they kind of fell a little flat for me. When they were done I was left with a “was that it?” feeling.
For a while I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt this way. I liked the characters, and their missions were fun, enjoyable dialogue and whatnot, but it only really occurred to me when I compared them to the companion missions from the other most recent Bioware game, Dragon Age: Inquisition.
I won’t mention any specifics here for I do not wish to spoil anything for you, dear reader, (though if you haven’t played Dragon Age: Inquisition, or any of the other Dragon Ages for that matter I highly recommend them) but the key thing that I liked from these missions almost always revolves around the fact that they really test the character, put them through the ringer, emotionally or physically or both.
You see part of what makes a character strong is their ideals, their convictions, their fears and hopes, this is what makes them a character rather than just a bundle of stats and weapons you can bring into battle with you, and one of the best ways to truly show off these defining features are to have them challenged and strained and maybe even shattered, seeing the character who holds them dissemble as a person and then rebuild themselves (or not as the case may be).
This testing of who a character truly is, really putting them in a situation they didn’t want to be in and straining their ideals, or picture of who they thought they were, is writing gold, and really makes them feel real and is the key factor in what makes those missions stand out. They illicit emotions.
One of the character missions in Inquisition literally made my girlfriend shift her whole opinion of one character, turning from someone she trusted and even considered romancing in the game, to someone she felt odd talking to and only got over a sense of unease about their presence when the game was finished and you saw the characters years later. That’s powerful.
But despite this amazingly strong show (for most of them, some had slightly less interesting companion missions, though to be fair one of the ones with a weaker companion mission had stellar DLC linked with them, which served as their main character development), Mass Effect: Andromeda’s companion missions on the whole were… inoffensive, no that’s not the right word… they just didn’t take any risks, they were far too safe with their characters, not wanting to rock the boat or challenge what they had established as their status quo.
On most accounts the missions were fine, and fun, specifically one for a character I wasn’t a massive fan of, whose quest ended up being quite comedic, quite enjoyable. But most of the characters themselves didn’t tend to go through any metamorphosis, any change. The games story on a whole didn’t really challenge many of the important characters, not in any meaningful way at least.
This is so disappointing coming from a game series I count on for a well written story with standout characters, who have had so much effect on me as a person, and on how I write characters in my own work.
Unfortunately for Bioware, Mass Effect: Andromeda has been met with very mixed reviews, and while most of the time people will just say “the characters are shit” what I think is really happening is the characters are never given a chance to come to life and connect with you in the way they have in the past.
So my main hope is that the makers of Andromeda understand what went wrong with the game, they see the problem with this lacklustre character writing and learn for the next one, so the series that I love can keep on living as a great example, rather than dying as a cautionary tale.