A lot of the dialog in this game is bad. Not just regular bad, but embarrassing and infantile. Yes, you can find some good bits here and there, but the low points here are shockingly low. Silver lining: Nobody here is as annoying as Kai Leng. (Assuming such a thing is even possible.)
Probably the most infamous conversation in the game is the one where we meet the Director of Colonial Affairs, Foster Addison. This conversation has it all. Cringy dialog. Mismatched vocal performances. Terrible animations. Uncanny facial expressions. Obvious false-choice dialog. Frustrating dialog options that won’t allow for obvious responses. Overly verbose dialog. Exposition that’s both over-long and yet somehow vague. This conversation probably isn’t the worst example of any of those problems, but it is this unique moment where all of these problems intersect and manifest at the same point.
I get the impression this is where a lot of the audience checked out. At this point in the game, maybe the player is feeling a little restless and wondering why they aren’t having a lot of fun or connecting with the characters.
Is there something wrong with this game, or am I just sad because I miss Garrus and Tali? Maybe I need to give this game some time. Maybe things will improve once we get the introduction and exposition out of the way.
And then we meet Foster Addison…
Oh wow. It’s not just me. This game is actual garbage.
This section is so bad that people are compelled to devise theories about how it could possibly be so terrible.
Let’s Talk to Foster Addison
As an example of the cringe-inducing conversations this game has to offer, here is our first meeting with Addison, Director of Colonial Affairs aboard the Nexus:
Foster Addison: (Angry and confrontational.) All right, what happened?
Ryder: To who?
Addison: (Still angry.) To “whom”. And your goddamn father!
So this person opens the conversation by correcting your grammar and being angry at you because your father is dead. I didn’t actually care about Alec Ryder and his dumb plans, but I imagine his daughter probably loved him. This dialog comes on so strong I thought the writer was setting up a cartoon villain. I was waiting for some kind of renegade interrupt to punch this lady out. But no. This isn’t a villain. It’s just a person who’s really inexplicably rude. Which, fine. That could be good for manufacturing cheap drama, but the dialog wheel won’t let you push back.
Addison: (Softens slightly, still irritated.) Sorry. My face is tired from dealing with… everything. And right now, I just want to know what happened with Alec.
Ryder: (The game won’t let you answer the question. You get two options and they both lead to the same result.) I don’t want to get into it. Things went wrong – and now I’m the one you have to deal with.
Addison: (Angry again.) Alec Ryder wouldn’t accept that kind of ultimatum. Damned if I will. We’d never have left home if we…
Dear writer: That’s not what “ultimatum” means. An ultimatum is an offer given with a threat that it must be accepted. Ryder simply redirected a question.
This wouldn’t be a big deal except you just did the who / whom thing. For some reason. If this character is supposed to be fussy, exacting, and pedantic, then they should stick to that. If you’re trying to show that they’re incompetent and hypocritical, then you need to let the player call them on it.
Also, she claims she won’t accept this “ultimatum”, which would imply she expects you to answer the question. Except, she just keeps rambling and changes the subject. It feels like this this linear dialog was written as a stream of consciousness and then never proofed, edited, or reviewed before being handed off to the voice actor.
Also… “My face is tired?” Is English not your first language? What?
None of these mistakes ruin the scene on their own, but every line is just a bit off-kilter or distracting in some way. The cumulative effect is one of either boredom or annoyance. This is the dialog equivalent of having the camera slightly out of focus and off-center for half a scene. Sure, you can still follow the action. But why didn’t anyone catch this?
The reasonable response to this is to point out that those fourteen months of failure are all on Addison, not Alec. Alec was in Cryo sleep and Addison was running shit. She’s basically condemning Alec for failing to predict how incompetent she’d be. Which, fine. Flawed characters can be interesting. But as the player you just stand there and take her nonsensical venting and you can’t respond.
Ryder: (Ask about Addison’s relationship with her father.) You called my father Alec. No one does that.
Addison: A lot of us joined the Initiative because of his vision. What he shared of it, anyway.
Ryder: (Spontaneous non-player response.) Were you friends, or…?
Addison: (Still angry and confrontational.) I’m not your new mother, if that’s what you’re asking. Or his friend.
Addison: He hated that I didn’t use his title. But no one’s a Pathfinder until they’ve pathfound something. Much like a Colonial Director without colonies.
So this woman just bluntly states that she’s deliberately disrespecting your father, who just died to save your life. She admits she’s disrespected him for as long as she’s known him and that he didn’t like it. Fine, this woman is a rampaging asshole. Why aren’t we allowed to do something about it?
Also, Addison’s position is wrong. And hypocritical. If I’m hired as an accountant then I’m an accountant, even before I show up for work on day one. That’s how job titles work.
This wouldn’t be so irritating except she was introduced as “Director of Colonial Affairs” and she didn’t feel the need to argue with that. But as she points out, there aren’t any colonies. Going by her own logic, we should be calling her “Foster”. Or “Dipshit”.
She’s disrespecting a dead colleague to his bereaved family, with nonsense hypocritical reasoning, in an angry voice. And the dialog wheel won’t let you DO anything. This dialog isn’t just wrong, it’s actively frustrating. Ryder doesn’t even drop her slightly creepy perma-smile during the exchange.
Why would the writer do this? Why is the writer forcing you to be berated by this petty dingbat for irrational reasons and not allowing you to push back? That’s where the drama comes from! Two people! Debating! Through dialog!
Ryder: (Asking about the hostiles.) There must be some kind of plan for encountering hostile aliens. We can’t have been that naive.
Dipshit: We expected life, not an enemy that refuses to talk. They don’t attack – they disinfect. We’re nothing until we’re bacteria. (Beat.) Sorry. Fourteen months and you stoop to poetry. That’s how bad it is.
Dipshit: Talk to Kandros if you haven’t. He’s unfortunately become the head of our “military”. And as soon as he realizes it, we’re in the shit.
Ryder: (Spontaneous non-player response.) You don’t trust him?
Dipshit: I trust him to defend us. I do NOT trust a rising military influence in our supposedly civilian Initiative. We came to make history, Ryder. Not repeat it. (Beat.) Ugh. Goddamn poetry.
This is just ghastly. Addison talks about “poetry”, but nothing she says is remotely “poetic”. The bacteria thing is just a really clumsy analogy, but the writer thought they were being “poetic”.
(And she never even answered Ryder’s question. Instead she changed the subject to complain about something that’s completely unsupported by what we’re shown. Kandros doesn’t seem to have any desire to seize power and he’s one of only two people in the Nexus leadership who isn’t a complete incompetent.)
I’m not going to transcribe the rest of this dross, but you get the idea. At the end of the conversation Addison makes sure to point out how much she doesn’t trust Ryder.
How I’d have done it:
It’s not like these two don’t have things to fight about! Rather than ranting about bacteria and poetry, or disrespecting the recently-dead, Addison ought to be grilling Ryder about her lack of qualifications. Alec put his daughter on the Pathfinder team and passed the title to her despite her lack of training. Addison has every right to be mad that all their hopes are riding on the actions of this unqualified whelp. But instead she complains about a bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with Ryder.
On the flipside, there’s plenty of stuff Ryder can say here. Addison is complaining about Alec’s plan, but Addison has spent the last fourteen months exploring new frontiers in failure. Since waking up her team has founded a failed colony, gotten a bunch of people killed, enlisted the help of the Krogan as muscle to keep order, created a brutal police state which led to armed rebellion, saw thousands of personnel abandon the Initiative, betrayed the Krogan which led to them abandoning the Initiative, and then sat on her giant spaceship doing nothing while the lights went out and the food ran low. The only reason the two of you aren’t sitting in the dark right now is because you’re sharing your electricity with her.
This would make for a great argument. One person is unqualified and unproven, and the other is an established failure. Sara is grieving and Addison has been living without hope, so both have a lot of reasons to be emotional. You could decide if you want to lash out and make it clear you won’t be pushed around, or you could play nice and build bridges. Instead we get lots of dialog that doesn’t flow naturally, doesn’t make sense, offers almost nothing new in the way of exposition, and which doesn’t allow for reasonable player responses.
This mess of a conversation is a mandatory exchange in the early stages of the game, where you’d expect to have lots of polish. Baffling.
The Vague Rebellion
Not being allowed to push back against Addison is frustrating, but that conversation is even more inexplicable when you compare it to the very next one. We meet with Director Tann, who is now the leader of the entire Initiative. Tann is a bit of a cagey politician. After a few interactions with him you get the sense that he wants to take credit for successful things and distance himself from failures. He likes to give you “permission” to do things you’re already doing, to pretend like he has authority over you.
He’s maybe a bit of a weasel, but harmless in the long run. He certainly never disrespects your family or pointlessly impedes your efforts the way Addison doesHe does oppose one of your plans later on, but he does so for reasons other than “I need you to fill out tons of paperwork for no reason”.. I actually kind of liked him, the way I liked Udina back in Mass Effect 1. He’s an interesting foil for the player and I wish their sparring went a bit deeper or led to some payoff.
Some people will dislike Tann because recently a bunch of colonists rebelled and left. They’re now called the Exiles. I imagine a lot of players just assume Tann was a brutal dictator and he’s just putting on a nice face for us. That’s certainly possible, although the bigger problem is that the writer never stops to explain how the shooting started or who was at fault.
Later in the game we’ll meet some of the Initiative exiles, and the vast majority of them have – in the space of just a few months – reverted to Mad Max levels of lawless savagery. They will attack their follow humans without provocation and can’t be reasoned with. Maybe the story is telling us that the seemingly-harmless Director Tann is actually guilty of some pretty gruesome human rights violations, or maybe the exiles were all bad eggs. The story makes it sound like they rioted not because of anything that Tann did, but because everyone was in a dire situation and Tann couldn’t fix it. In other places it feels like the colonists were big babies who were angry that risky voyages across dark space turned out to be a mild imposition for themBoo hoo! I demand you wake up my family from cryo storage even though there’s not enough food to go around and there’s no place for them to live!. The writer is all over the place here and we can’t figure out to what degree Tann is a tyrant or the colonists are entitled dingbats.
It actually reminds me of the frustrating gaslighting Mass Effect 2/3 did with Cerberus where one person would tell us they’re practical Human-first idealists and another would show us they’re cartoon space Nazis, and you couldn’t explore this through dialog. You couldn’t tell the Cerberus supporters about Cerberus war crimes and the Cerberus supporters would never tell you about the supposed Cerberus good deeds.
What were the issues that drove the rebellions? Who shot first? When did it happen? How did it escalate? How many died?
But Shamus! Isn’t it good when a fictional world offers multiple viewpoints?
Yes it is. And if different sides had different accounts on who shot first then we might have something to work with. This whole thing is so vague that we can’t really think about it.
At a couple of points in the game you’re offered the option of offering amnesty to Exiles, except you can’t ask reasonable questions about their crimes. If this guy stole food and ran away, then sure. Now that we’re stable let’s welcome him back to the fold. On the other hand if he was murdering unarmed civilians during the rebellion then I’d just as soon he remained an exile. Maybe he’s a reasonable guy pushed to desperation by extreme circumstances, or maybe he’s a violent psychopath who was just looking for an excuse to start killing people. Heck, if the story would just acknowledge this it would be fine. SAM could tell you that we know this guy is an exile, but we have no way of knowing what he did. The problem isn’t that you’re not allowed to know everything, the problem is that you’re never allowed to ask.
Which means that instead of Ryder being asked to answer the Hard Questions, it seems like she’s just another dumbass that doesn’t know how to assess risk.
In either case, the player doesn’t know about any of this when we get to the Nexus. And yet the dialog wheel enables you to push back against Tann as soon as you meet him. You can accuse him of being an opportunist and point out his slimy behavior, even before he’s done anything even mildly objectionable. Can Ryder see into the future? Why is the player allowed to spar with the harmless Director Tann before he’s even a problem, but they’re never allowed to give the slightest resistance to Addison the hateful obstructionist jackass? These two conversations happen back-to-back, which makes the discrepancy even more jarring.
I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of the dialog problems in this game. We’ll talk more about this stuff as this series goes on.
 He does oppose one of your plans later on, but he does so for reasons other than “I need you to fill out tons of paperwork for no reason”.
 Boo hoo! I demand you wake up my family from cryo storage even though there’s not enough food to go around and there’s no place for them to live!
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