Once the Eos colony is founded, we’re off to the next planet. Along the way we run into the Kett flagship. Figuratively, but also nearly literally. We drop out of warp just a few meters short of them.
Imagine two big game hunters roaming around a vast wilderness, completely unaware of one another. Each of them sees a target, and each of them aims their weapon and fires it. By accident, their bullets collide in mid-air. That sounds unlikely, doesn’t it? And yet that’s orders of magnitude more likely than two interstellar spaceships ending up a hundred meters apart by random chance.
If this is a chance encounter, then that’s ridiculous. But if this isn’t – if the Kett somehow saw where we were going and headed us off – then why don’t they ever pull this trick again?
Moreover, the geography of this scene makes no sense. The tempest drops out of warp and winds up nose-to nose with the Kett flagship. But the space behind them is filled with the scourge, which means they must have passed through the scourge to get here. And what is the Archon doing hanging out in the middle of the scourge cloud like this?
Yes, I get we’re no longer doing details-first sci-fi and we’re not supposed to think about the science of moving around in space. Fine. But even in a drama-based universe like Star Wars we still need rules to allow the audience to understand what’s possible. When the Empire puts a tracking device on the Millennium Falcon, we understand this means the bad guys will be able to follow the good guys back to their base. The writer doesn’t just have the bad guys show up without explanation, because in a good story C happens because of B, which happened because of A. It’s hard to create drama in a universe without some level of causality.
Here in Andromeda we have the bad guys randomly bump into the good guys. Was the Archon really sitting in this scourge cloud just above the Angaran homeworld? Did he know the heroes would pass through here? The encounter is presented as if it’s a trap. It nearly works. The good guys barely escape. And yet the bad guys never try this trick again.
What are the rules here? Was this an ambush? Could they try it again? Why don’t they?
Whatever. The important thing is that this is where we meet the bad guy, which means this is where the game falls apart and the Andromeda setting is thoroughly ruined.
You can explain a lot of the problems with this game in terms of development problems. There are some ideas that could have been made to work with more time for polish. There are some bits of the game where you can see different writers were not on the same page, and maybe if the schedule wasn’t so tight their work could have been brought into harmony.
During Mass Effect 2 / Mass Effect 3, there was always the excuse that maybe the writer is fine, they’re just wrong for this style of story. If they were allowed to make their own story and weren’t saddled with completing someone else’s work, then maybe their writing could really shine.
But there is no excuse for the state of our main villain here in Andromeda. I don’t care what genre of fiction this game is supposed to be, this guy is a vortex of terrible ideas. He’s not just bad, he’s wrong. Again, I don’t know if this is a new writer or if this is a returning Mass Effect 3 alumni, and it doesn’t matter. I’m criticizing the art and not the person.
This is one of the worst villains I’ve ever seen in a science-fiction story. Sure, guys like Kai Leng, Harbinger, and the Illusive Man might have been more annoying overall, but a lot of their problems were that they were wrong for the world. TIM would be a really cool character in the context of some sort of thriller, and Martin Sheen’s performance was excellent. Kai Leng would have been fine if he was part of a kid’s cartoon. Harbinger would have worked out okay in a campy universe like Last Starfighter or Fifth Element. But the Archon is just irredeemably awful. Everything about him is terrible. His dialog is terrible. The dialog delivery is terrible. The character concept is terrible. The character’s visual design is terrible.
The Archon’s dialog sounds just like Harbinger. He’s got the same overblown way of speaking, and just like Harbinger he’s a complete loser. This guy will belt out things like, “YOU SHALL NEVER DEFEAT MY ELITE GUARDS!” as you slaughter your way through his elite guards.
You might argue that this is supposed to be empowering, that we’re supposed to enjoy proving this guy wrong again and again. But it’s only enjoyable to overcome someone if they come off as cunning or imposing. The Archon is a loser from the moment you meet him, and his only win against you is due to writer-imposed stupidity on the part of the hero.
And then there’s the visual design. Just look at this guy:
He’s got the face of a sheep and a toilet seat on the top of his head. He looks hilarious. The artist even made his eyes tiny and the lids tilt outward, which makes him look sort of stupid and meek. Is he shorter than his minions? And does he have a dumpy beer gut?
This goof is supposed to the the pinnacle of genetic manipulation?
Which, fine. In a hard sci-fi story it would be valid to mess around with the idea that, “The things humans use as emotional cues aren’t universal”. Except, this is such a ridiculously over-the-top character we can’t possibly give the writer that kind of credit. The story takes this guy so deadly seriously, and yet his visual design runs directly opposite to that. He’s ugly, yet not ugly enough to be disturbing or interesting. He’s all spiky in a way that’s supposed to make him look evil, but then his face and pull-tab haircut work against that.
Even if we ignore the visual design, he’s a complete failure because he brings nothing to the table in terms of themes or ideas. He doesn’t oppose Ryder on a philosophical level. He has nothing interesting to say about his species of brainwashed drones. He doesn’t have any clever plans or an interesting backstory. Or any backstory.
This isn’t an unreasonable thing to ask for! In fact, if you’re abandoning nerdy, fussy, details-first sci-fi in favor of action schlockAnd to be clear: Action schlock is a totally legitimate form of art and just as worthy of praise as details-based sci-fi. then it’s even more critical that you get the villain right. There’s a saying in fiction, “A hero is only as good as their villain.” There’s a reason audiences embraced Loki and Heath Ledger’s Joker but rejected Steppenwolf (Justice League) Malekith (Thor: The Dark World) and it doesn’t have anything to do with how physically formidable or powerful they are. In fact, the Joker was scary as hell and he was just a regularI mean in terms of physical strength and durability. guy in clown makeup.
Yes, there is room in fiction for simple, straightforward villains. Hela (Thor Ragnarok) and Ronan the Accuser (Guardians of the Galaxy) were both cartoonishly evil. But Hela was fun and witty and seemed to be having a good time. Her character had a nice emotional range that went from playful to vicious to amused to seething. She was fun to watch. Plus, there was all this stuff under the surface about Asgard’s history of brutal conquest and their dysfunctional royal family. Ronan was a one-note bad guy, but his scenes were few, short, and Star Lord even mocked his super-serious attitude.
For contrast, here in Andromeda the Archon has nothing going for him. He’s not having fun. He’s not fun to watch. He has nothing thematic to say. He never says anything incisive or clever. He’s a one-note bore with a lot of dialog. He has no personal rivalry with Ryder except that both of you want the same magic gizmo. Worst of all, the dialog wheel forces you to take this guy seriously. Archon spends a lot of time bellowing at us over the PA system about how unworthy we are and how he’s going to “decimate” us. I wouldn’t mind so much if I could mock him and brush him off with a joke like Star Lord would, but our character sinks to his level by taking the exchange seriously.
(And speaking of “decimate”: The writer uses the word decimate when they mean “obliterate”. Yes, the usage of the word is shifting, but it’s not there yet. It’s like having the villain misuse “literally” to mean “figuratively”. Maybe in a generation it won’t stick out so much, but right now that usage sounds wrong to a large portion of the audience. When multiple characters from multiple species all misuse the same term, you can suddenly hear the voice of the author leaking through the characters. Sure, the audience probably gets what you’re trying to say, but it’s going to sound odd and distracting in a science fiction setting. I want to point out that multiple characters correct our protagonist on her usage of who / whom, so this wrong use of decimate sticks out even more.)
Intensifying the awfulness is just how much dialog he gets and how little of it is needed. He’s constantly promising to defeat you. He never says anything surprising, interesting, or informative. It’s just a retread of threats he’s made a dozen times before.
There’s a lot wrong with Andromeda, but nearly all of it could have been dismissed or mitigated with the right villain. The Archon is so dull, so childish, so lacking in imagination and ambition that he dooms the entire experience. It’s impossible to care about a world in which this guy is supposed to be a serious threat.
How I’d have done it:
The low-effort way to fix this is just to dial his performance down, remove all of his extraneous dialog, and only have him talk when he has something useful to say.
This isn’t a hard character to designI mean, it’s not hard for an artist. I certainly couldn’t model it, but I’m not a 3D character artist. and I can’t imagine how things went so wrong. Just redesign his model to be more imposing and less comical. If he’s going to be a screaming tyrant monster, at least he should LOOK like a screaming tyrant monster. Scowling eyes. Big teeth. Powerful jaw. And get rid of the toilet seat on top of his head.
If I wanted to actually fix him in a way that would make him interesting instead of merely inoffensive, then I’d be a little more ambitious. Let’s try a different design, and at the same time add some basic themes to the game. Let’s also address the weird problem where we crossed dark space to find a bunch of guys at the exact same tech level we are.
First, let’s change the Kett:
In my version, the Kett are way behind us in terms of materials and weapons technology, but way ahead when it comes to gene manipulation. Essentially, their genetics ARE their technology.
We’d re-purpose Lexi (the ship’s doctor) to give us exposition about their physical properties. There’s already a scene in the game where she looks at a Kett corpse. We just need to make her studies an ongoing series of expositional conversations rather than a one-off chat that tells us nothing. She would reveal a bunch of facts like:
- The Kett are a caste-based society, and each caste has unique DNA. We only have this front-line fighter to study, and we don’t have good samples of the other kinds of Kett. These grunts run around naked, but they’re effectively badasses because of their physical characteristics.
- We can theorize that these other Kett (the Anointed, Cardinals, etc) are from some other species that the Kett have absorbed.
- The Kett are amphibious, they can survive for several minutes in a vacuumThis fact is already in the game., and they can hold their breath for up to an hour.
- They can eat nearly anything, even their own dead.
- The Kett don’t age, and could theoretically (as far as Lexi can tell) live forever. They also have no reproductive systemThis fact is already in the game. and only reproduce via their gene-splicing / rewrite thing.
- Their carapace is as tough as alliance Armor. It’s also conductive, carrying electric shock away from their vital organs. It can also mitigate ionizing radiation.
- They have almost as many redundant organs as the Krogan, and can regrow limbs.
- They can theoretically survive at any temperatures above the boiling point of oxygen (-196 °C / -320 °F) and below the boiling point of water.
- If trapped without food, a Kett can enter a hibernative state for up to six months.
- Their blood is just alkaline enough to kill all known pathogens. They’re effectively immune to all sickness and diseaseThis is the kind of detail I’d run by a few science-minded colleagues for a plausibility audit. Maybe acidic would work better. Maybe we can come up with another mechanism..
- The reward centers of their brains are keyed to their social hierarchy. Effectively, they get pleasure from obeying orders. If a Kett was deprived of leadership, it would do everything it could to find a leader of the proper caste. If it was isolated for long enough, it might become depressed and die.
If the player asks why the Kett guns are still dangerous to us if they’re so far behind, someone can explain that their guns are unwieldy and heavy, and the ammunition is bulky. They’re compensating for their primitive firearm technology by carrying really heavy-hitting guns, which they can handle thanks to their advanced strength and reflexes.
I won’t say this fixes the Kett or anything, but it does make them less of a bore. Note that we’re not jamming this stuff down the player’s throat. If they don’t care about Kett society or physiology, they can just skip talking to the doctor. We’re not adding a lot of dialog to the game, so this change should be fairly cheap.
In the game, enemies are given these quasi-religious names: Chosen, Anointed, Disciple, the Cardinal. The transformation is called “exaltation”. The installation where they transform people into Kett is called a “holy place”. This is a fine start for giving them a bit of culture, but it’s not enough to make them interesting on its own. The Kett footsoldiers are portrayed as brainwashed drones. They don’t seem to have any emotional investment in the things they’re doing and we don’t see any indications of passion or creativity in their bases. They live in generic bio-industrial complexes. No clothes, no paintings, no music, no self-expression.
You could argue that the religion is a means of control, but they seem to be entranced or brainwashed before they’re transformed, so it’s not clear why the leadership would need to bother with the religious stuff.
Shamus, you can’t be so dense that you expect the writer to show the bad guys singing and dancing. This isn’t a Disney movie you idiot!
Sure, sure. I’m not saying the writer should do that. I’m just saying that I don’t get the sense that all this religious stuff means anything to them, or that they’re even aware of it. I feel like for the religious stuff to really work we either needed a lot more of it or a lot less. Either characterize them as a race of devoted zealots or just leave them as mindless space monsters. To me it looks like the writer mooshed together two totally different sci-fi tropes without noticing that they’re mutually exclusive and thematically incompatible.
Anyway, now that we’ve given the Kett a clear foundation of physical characteristics we can work on improving the Archon:
The Archon design isn’t that hard and I don’t know how the writer went so wrong. Just ask yourself, “Given what this character believes, how would they behave?”
In my version, the Archon ought to be beautiful. Majestic. Noble. Since “exalting” other species is the Archon’s goal, let’s use that to inform the personality.
From the Archon’s point of view, they’re running a rescue shelter. They find a sad desperate species, doomed to a life of hunger, pain, disease, and aging. Then they “save” this species from their pointless life of torment. They take the interesting and useful genetic traits (if any) from the victim and use them to improve all Kett. To the Archon, all life has value and their unending assimilation of all sapient life is an act of altruism.
Let’s have the Archon see itself as a nurturing being. We can even make the character coded as female, or heck, why not just make it explicitly female? The Archon sees herself as space-Galadriel. Ryder lost her motherOr she thinks she did. It’s complicated. in the Milky Way, and the Archon is trying to be a mother-figure to all of the Initiative. This would give us tools to play around with themes of nurturing and motherhood.
The Archon laments every Kett soldier you kill, but also for every Milky Way life her forces take. She really just wants you to stop struggling.
When a species fights back, she doesn’t hate them. She looks at your species the way a vet looks at a scared, trapped, injured animal. Sure, it’s trying to bite you. But that’s only because it’s frightened and hurting and doesn’t know any better. Once we “heal” it, it will embrace us.
This would make her a little unsettling. She’s proposing destroying your free will and everything you hold dear, while at the same time being totally convinced that she’s helping you and that she’s the good guy.
Instead of blustering at you like an idiot, the Archon will constantly be trying to convince you that accepting exaltation will fix your problems. These planets aren’t habitable for you? Become one of the Kett, and all worlds will be habitable for you. And you’ll never get old. Or sick.
That’s a start, but let’s give them a philosophical difference, just to give things some texture…
The Archon is dedicated to perfecting the Kett via genetics. They see the Initiative’s reliance on technology as a shameful flaw and it offends them on a moral level. The Archon sees our shields and firearms and omni-tools as something that’s holding us back. It’s like someone who shows up to a boxing match with a knife, or someone who uses a motorcycle to win a marathon. You’re not just cheating, you’re missing the entire point of the contest. In the Archon’s mind, you don’t deserve to win because your power isn’t “real”. To her, all your tools are ugly cheats.
If you point out to her that the Kett still use vehicles and dropships and spaceships and guns, she’ll explain that they’re working to shed even these tools. Their ultimate goal is to create a species that can travel the stars and explore worlds under its own power. This is their big long-term dream, and they attach a lot of quasi-religious significance to it. She wants you to be a part of this. She’s certain that with Salarian intelligence and Asari bioticsBiotics are new to the inhabitants of Andromeda. she’ll be able to make great progress towards this goal. She also promises she wants humans for their “natural leadership”, but it’s impossible to tell if this is horseshit or not.
At the end, the Archon is simply trying to control the master vault because it will allow her to make all planets in the Heleus cluster uninhabitable for you. Then you won’t have any choice but to accept her offer.
I’m not going to pretend this is brilliant sci-fi. It’s a blend of familiar topes. I’m sure you noticed the Star Trek Borg fingerprints all over it. It’s pretty standard stuff. But it ought to work well enough to serve the shooter gameplay, and give us a villain that won’t induce eye-rolling the moment they appear on screen.
The Archon is a deeply flawed character, across the board, from inception to execution. This isn’t a single mistake or a miscalculation. This isn’t something that could have been fixed with more time for polish. This is a staggering failure that can only be blamed on managerial apathy or incompetence. This studio was formed specifically to create a story-based RPG. The fact that THIS design is what they chose for the main villain of their debut title means that there was something seriously wrong with either the leadership or the design process.
 And to be clear: Action schlock is a totally legitimate form of art and just as worthy of praise as details-based sci-fi.
 I mean in terms of physical strength and durability.
 I mean, it’s not hard for an artist. I certainly couldn’t model it, but I’m not a 3D character artist.
 This fact is already in the game.
 This is the kind of detail I’d run by a few science-minded colleagues for a plausibility audit. Maybe acidic would work better. Maybe we can come up with another mechanism.
 Or she thinks she did. It’s complicated.
 Biotics are new to the inhabitants of Andromeda.
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