The player character has been made the Pathfinder. They’ve also maybe been given superpowers, although in terms of gameplay you’re exactly as powerful as beforeSAM does give you the ability to class-switch in the field. It doesn’t re-allocate your skill points or anything so it’s not going to be useful until late in the game, but it’s something.. At this point in the game we cut to see some sort of bad guyWe can tell he’s the bad guy because he’s ugly and has ominous musical cues. What? Were you expecting subtlety? exploring the tower that Alec Ryder activated.
Cue Ominous Music
This is our big introduction to the antagonist. He’s a big topic and he’ll get an entry of his own later in this series. For now I’ll just say that his presence here is not building our confidence in the story.
Even ignoring the story problems, everything about this scene is horrendous. The MAXIMUM BLUE filter is ridiculous overkill. The foreground is a group of Kett and the background is a an ancient Remnant construction, so they should be in sharp contrast for both thematic and artistic reasons. Instead everything is blue, robbing us of contrast and making the image muddled. This is made worse by the atrociously busy and over-designed armor.
The big bad is supposed to be an imposing space-lord of doom but he’s shorter than his mooks. His armor makes him look dumpy around the middle. That pull tab on his head looks comical. His face shape is exactly the opposite of what this character concept calls for. He should have a huge jaw, cunning eyes, and a large mouth, because that’s how you make your villain look imposing. Instead he looks like a pouty child, but also a bit like a sheep. Since this scene is cartoon action schlock, there’s no excuse for not using the tools of action schlock to sell your villain.
It’s amazing how hard the storyteller worked to do the wrongest thing possible. This scene is two and a half minutes with no dialog. If you’re going to sell your villain entirely on the visuals, then you really can’t afford to have an inept visual presentation.
So that’s the introduction done. The player is now the Pathfinder, they’re empowered by the AI buddy in their noggin, they know there’s a bad guy out there somewhere, and they need to find someplace for human beings to live.
After the disaster on Habitat 7, the Human ark joins up with the Nexus. Like I said earlier in the series, the Nexus is the flagship / port / capital city of the Andromeda Initiative. Supposedly all the arks should meet here.
I really like this scene during the shuttle ride. Your squad has just been through the wringer. Your planned homeworld is a dead rock with a poisonous atmosphere, your Pathfinder died, another member of the pathfinder team was KIA, and another one is stuck in cryo storage. Everyone is looking forward to reconnecting with the Nexus under the assumption that the Human ark just had a run of bad luck and everyone else is doing fine. “Real food and a shower are just ahead,” Cora says hopefully.
But then you arrive to discover the Nexus is in much worse condition, to the point where they turn around and ask you for help.
The Nexus ran into the scourge, got damaged, and most of the main leadership was killed. The remaining people woke up lost and confused. They tried to settle one of the planned worlds, but the colony was a bust due to Kett attacks. Some people on the station wanted to wake up their families, but that wasn’t possible because there weren’t enough resources to go around. Eventually there were riots. The Krogan were convinced to subdue the rioters. But the animosity kept brewing, and so a bunch of people left the Nexus. Others were kicked out. They stole a bunch of equipment and left to seek their own fortunes.
Now the Nexus is cold, dark, and empty. They’re low on food, low on power, and none of the remaining leaders have a plan. Instead they mooch power from you and demand to know where you’ve been and what you’ve managed to accomplish.
What’s Wrong With Your FAAACE?
This conversation is one of the moments in the game that became a source of jokes and memes. This is where Ryder meets with the Nexus leadership. It’s a crucial conversation that takes place very early in the game, so you’d probably assume this is where you’d see the most polished content. But at launch this scene was so janky it turned this dramatic moment into a comedic farce.
There were odd pauses in the conversation. The faces and bodies weren’t properly animated. Instead, everyone stood still and moved their lips while the rest of their face remained motionless. Ryder delivered the news that her father was dead and then the camera lingered on her motionless smiling face, making her seem like a lunatic. The irises of Addison’s eyes were too small, which made it look like she had this wild-eyed Charles Manson look on her face. Director Tann – the Salarian guy – had some strange animations that were probably intended to make it look like he was searching the room, but instead made it look like he was an actor who forgot his lines and was waiting for his cue. It was a spectacular showcase for all the various ways a game designer could find themselves in the uncanny valley. (And on top of it all, the dialog is really bad. We’ll talk about the dialog in the next entry.) It was embarrassing, frustrating, hilarious, and sad. So much time and money was spent making this scene and these characters, and yet all of that hard work looked terrible because this introduction was so strange and off-putting.
The game has since been patched, and a lot of this is fixed. (For the record, I played this game long after release so all of my screenshots are from the “fixed” version.) The camera cuts make more sense, the awkward pauses are much shorter, Addison’s eyes are less psychotic, and Ryder adopts an appropriate facial expression when delivering the news about her father. It’s still not a great scene. It still feels sort of stiff and awkward and oddly paced, but at least it’s no longer a joke.
So how did this happen?
The best explanation I’ve found comes from New Frame PlusHosted by Dan of Extra Credits, but without the chipmunk voice or the drawings., which explains how cutscenes like this are made and what could go wrong to make it look so bad. It’s really educational and I highly recommend watching the whole thing, but if you’re not in a position to do that, then here is the short version:
A game like Uncharted or Last of Us can afford to motion-cap all their cutscenes because they have short, linear stories. But an RPG like Andromeda has dozens of hours of branching dialog that would make this infeasible. So studios have to find some way to automate the process.
These games have multiple libraries of animations that can be layered together. For one line of dialog Shepard might stand in pose idle_8 while his head performs angry_nod_12 and his eyes are locked on npc_joe_colonist. Then the next line of dialog has him perform neutral_stance_3 with head_scratch_7 and his eyes looking downward. And so on. While all of this is going on, the game is moving the mouth around to make the lip sync work.
They have tools that can automatically set up this sort of thing. You can feed it some dialog and audio files and it will set up some basic camera cuts, body poses, and lip sync. None of it will be GOOD, but it will have the basic elements of a conversation. From here, a cutscene animator can go through and tweak the scene by hand to make it look less robotic.
The main theory offered by the Extra Frames video is that the game shipped with these default auto-generated scenes, rather than having an artist work on it. There’s no way to prove this, of course, but it would explain why the game looked the way it did.
The other contributing factor was probably the switch from Unreal Engine to the Frostbite engine. This would have forced BioWare to throw away their established library of animation stances, facial expressions, character models, lip movements, and cutscene tools. On top of learning to work with an all-new toolset, the team would have needed to re-create all of that content from scratch. Perhaps that put too much pressure on the art pipeline, and so they couldn’t finish hand-crafting the cutscenes in time.
Then again, I’m not sure I buy the notion that they had to throw everything away. There are a few animations that look like they were recycled from earlier gamesWhen Sara wakes up after the protagonist transplant, I swear she does the some animation as Shepard waking up after Cerberus brought him back to life. and so I’m not sure what to think. In any case, it’s really strange how some of the most unpolished scenes appeared in the most critical parts of the story.
None of this is helped by the lack of coherent direction. Often the vocal performance doesn’t match up with how the dialog was written. When you see one of these moments it’s easy to blame the actors or writers because you can tell something is wrong with the story and they’re usually our first suspects, but the blame for this should fall squarely on the shoulders of the director.
An example of bad direction is a moment where Character A has a line questioning the Pathfinder’s abilities. It’s delivered in a reasonable tone of voice. But then Character B says something like, “That’s no way to talk to the Pathfinder!” It’s clear the first line was supposed to be confrontational, but the actor wasn’t given proper guidance about how their line should be delivered.
Elsewhere you’ll have someone deliver their lines in an aggressive and combative style, and yet your responses are all friendly and businesslike. The result is that it feels like your character doesn’t notice. The two performances don’t match up, but from the standpoint of the audience it’s hard to put your finger on the problem. Is this other character crazy? Is my character crazy? What’s wrong with this scene?
The problems go deeper than just the animation system. Yes, the facial animation and general pacing of the of the conversation is bad. But even if these were more polished you’d still have the problem where the facial expression doesn’t match the line delivery. And even if you fixed that, the line deliveries don’t match each other. And even if you fixed that, a lot of the dialog is just sophomoric and full of cringe. At some point this looks less like a budget problem and more like a leadership problem.
If At First You Don’t Succeed, Quit.
The sad thing is that EA has since closed this studio. They paid the brutal up-front cost of switching engines and spinning up a new team, but once the cost was incurred they decided to close the place. If this team got to make another Mass Effect game, it likely would have been of much higher quality and gotten done a lot faster.
Then again, I doubt the writing and design work would have improved, so it’s not really a great tragedy. I suppose EA saved me from playing another frustrating and disappointing Mass Effect title.
 SAM does give you the ability to class-switch in the field. It doesn’t re-allocate your skill points or anything so it’s not going to be useful until late in the game, but it’s something.
 We can tell he’s the bad guy because he’s ugly and has ominous musical cues. What? Were you expecting subtlety?
 Hosted by Dan of Extra Credits, but without the chipmunk voice or the drawings.
 When Sara wakes up after the protagonist transplant, I swear she does the some animation as Shepard waking up after Cerberus brought him back to life.
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