‘Mass Effect’ and the Drive for Discovery

Mass Effect: Andromeda has sought to recapture the novelty and possibility of the original Mass Effect by taking the franchise to a totally new galaxy. The design elements, the characters, the player input, and the visual cuing all try to build the sense of discovery.

Your character, either female or male-presenting Ryder, wakens from cryo-stasis to jump directly into the world of the game. You are introduced to Cora, the second-in-command for the Pathfinder team, and summoned to meet with the Pathfinder: your father. The abruptness of the awakening is highlighted by the failed wakening of your twin. The gravity in the cryo-recovery room is disrupted, which slams his pod into the ground and interrupts the wakening process. The shock of the first moments of the game establishes a sense of the panic and disorder that the character awakens to. This framing of the world’s strangeness highlights the discomfort the player should feel; things are unfamiliar to enable the sense of possibility and discovery.

Mass Effect: Andromeda begins with the sense of discomfort. There is no gentle introduction or gradual setting out of the world as players experienced as Shepard in the original Mass Effect trilogy. Instead, you awake and rush into a mission on Horizon 7. You fall from your shuttle, get separated from your team, and start your game experience alone on a fully foreign planet. One of the early challenges is a moment of first contact: seeing an alien species and deciding how to approach the situation. Are they a threat? A local species? As the foreign invaders, the human explorers must weigh their choices carefully. This highlighting of the foreign nature of the world is key to the new experience of Mass Effect: Andromeda.

The further sense of dislocation and fish-out-of-water-ness is a result of your role after the first mission: Pathfinder. The challenge of being a young explorer in a new role is exacerbated by the political landscape, or lack thereof. There are a few key players and few figures of authority and fewer structures to which Ryder can respond. Unlike the bureaucracy of the Alliance or Cerberus, the Initiative doesn’t have the same sense of oversight and order. Thus, as Pathfinder, Ryder is thrust into a complicated, potentially overwhelming role: The player must find her way with her avatar.

From the early promotional campaigns, Andromeda has been all about the discovery and the new space; designers responded to the calls for a return to an unknown map, like the player had in Mass Effect. The exploration and gradual reveal of a different place was the focus of the advertising, and the game follows through on that promise. The focus is, inherently, discovery. Characters point out how strange and new the space is, while Ryder herself is perpetually commenting on the novelty of her surroundings and mission. Statements like “There’s something you don’t see back home” frame the idea that Andromeda is not home; the entire Initiative project is to make a home in Andromeda, yet the characters perpetually frame their space as foreign.

This contradiction keeps the player engaged with the new space, since the player is, of course, still on Earth and firmly grounded in the Milky Way. As much as Ryder and the explorers of Andromeda are committed to their journey, they still frame the experience through the lens of the player: This is new, and foreign. Liam, one of your Tempest crew-mates, tells the story of the car his family put on a space transport that is making its way to Andromeda; it won’t arrive for another 2.5 million years, but the appeal of knowing that an object from home was on its way is a part of what keeps Liam grounded. The situating of the travelers in the foreign space keeps the focus on the novelty: The avatar and player experience the same sense of discovery and revelation.

In previous Mass Effect games, Shepard directed the Normandy through a map in the middle of the ship. While Shepard was clearly in control of the direction and strategy of the ship, the distance between her and the bridge highlighted how sheltered and normalized travel in this galaxy is. The area is wholly mapped, explored, and familiar; even though there are still "undiscovered" planets, they are located to the point of a digitized map existing at the CIC, or Combat Information Centre, in the middle of the ship. The sense of the known was important to the character; the player, as Shepard, should feel competent and in control, even when facing the unknown.

In Mass Effect: Andromeda, Ryder is at the helm; the "map" control is actually the front of the Tempest, the Pathfinder’s ship, between the pilot and science officer. The visual of travel between planets and plotting the course is an actual visual of the space, rather than a top-down vision of the ship moving between point A and point B. When moving between the planets, the player sees it from the front of the ship. The graphical transition, instead of being a simple digital map inside a ship, brings the player and Ryder into the immediacy of movement. Each time you move from one planet to another, the game reminds you of that movement. This transition between planets was initially a mandatory part of the game, but with the update patch released in early April, the option to skip the visual transition became available. Each relocation to a new star-cluster involves a dizzying visual display, as the player watches the simulation of moving at phenomenal speed through space. This movement between star clusters remains a fixed part of the game, as it keeps the player aware of the travel, the exploration and the discovery of moving between the stars.

There is, however, an irony to the movement between planets that appears to take no resources or fuel, which was a mechanism of the original Mass Effect games; the Nexus station and the Initiative’s position in Helius is precarious, yet there is no cost associated with the Pathfinder’s travel.  While this makes sense for the lack of infrastructure and fueling stations available, it’s strange that fuel and planetary probes are bottomless in a space of such scarcity.

The Tempest highlights the visibility and discovery central to the game experience with one main feature: windows. The ship has numerous views to the outer space the ship flies through, and the traits of each new system are visible through the windows around the front of the ship and the windows above the central hub. Ryder can move through the ship, speak with teammates, and use the central consoles, but she does so with the constant visual reminder of the space outside. While the Normandy in the previous trilogy had shutters and observation decks, they were something Shepard needed to seek out. The incursion of the outside into the space of the ship brings Ryder into constant contact with Andromeda; the experience of the new galaxy is the focus of the game, and even within the safety of the ship, the space of Andromeda remains present: both beautiful and dangerous.

The sense of distance and discovery is paralleled in Ryder’s personal journey in Mass Effect: Andromeda, as the story begins with her working under an emotionally distant father, who is humanity’s Pathfinder. When she takes up the mantle, part of the process of learning about her father and her role involves unlocking memories through her AI system, SAM. Ryder’s father remains distant from Ryder even after his death; she must find memory fragments to unlock SAM’s access to her father’s past. This particular quest doesn’t make clear sense, as Ryder’s father’s memory triggers are scattered across worlds he never visited; yet it makes for part of the discovery of the new spaces to incorporate a part of Ryder discovering more about herself. Another aspect of Ryder’s dislocation results from her brother’s absence from the story initially, as he is in a coma for part of the game. So, while Ryder initially enters the world of Andromeda with the stabilizing presence of her family, the player never benefits from that reassurance. Ryder is immediately stripped of that comfort and must work to recover her past while she is left powerless to change her brother’s future.

The discovery and focus on novelty is, however, undercut in a number of ways. While the designers work to create a place of player estrangement, there are elements of the game that introduce familiarity. The allies in Andromeda, the Angara, fundamentally change the player’s interaction with the space. The game series has always provided the protagonist with a diverse crew, introducing numerous species to the ship and its voyages. It makes sense to have a crewmember from Andromeda, but this inclusion changes the way one interacts with the space. Instead of each world being blind discovery, there are settlements, mapped spaces, and, when you don’t bring your Angaran ally on the mission with you, his voice on the coms guides your decisions and exploration. The discovery is not totally new, but is rather trying to repair areas that are already inhabited and understood. The connection with the new race provides the unpacking of different belief systems and cultural traditions, but robs Ryder of the discovery and novelty that was the focus of the game’s promotion.

The game, despite its new space, is also fundamentally familiar. The fourth game in a franchise will naturally feel comfortable and known. Part of the appeal of buying a game like Mass Effect: Andromeda is that you know what you’re going to get: a large arching storyline, fetch-questing, sandbox exploration, and teammates you can engage with, learn about, and possibly romance. When they’re selling that game as new, however, the familiar is not what is being marketed. The mechanics, while updated to allow more diversity of play-styles and prevent players from locking into a particular character-class from the outset, are fundamentally familiar. The menus can be updated and the order changed, but the pause-screen layout, the conversation maps, and most of the combat mechanics feel the same.

The last element that undercuts the sense of novelty and exploration is the villain: the Kett. The creatures are revealed to be part of a nefarious religion, which is highlighted from the outset with enemy names like “Chosen” and “Anointed.” This religion “exalts” members of other species to create new Kett; this exaltation looks very familiar to the Husk-ing process that the Reapers performed in the original Mass Effect trilogy. The crew from the Initiative left the Milky Way before the revelation of the Reapers to anyone beyond Shepard’s crew, so they are not prepared for the horrors of genetic stripping and rewriting. The player, however, is.  The game’s ideal of novelty and discovery is undone in what is primarily a familiar storyline and an even more familiar villain. The horror may be shifted, as it is the Angara who discover their own have been transformed into the Kett, but any player who has enjoyed the Mass Effect series has already worked through the cognitive dissonance of “our enemy is us.”

The game uses beautiful visuals, complex climates and mutable planetary conditions, and story framing to draw the player into the sense of the new. Discovery and possibility are the backbone of the game. Yet the content and narrative line draw the player back into the familiar world of Mass Effect. Novelty makes way for familiarity, as the player explores the world of Andromeda through the safe lens of a Mass Effect universe.

Last modified on Thursday, 04 May 2017 05:13

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