Andromeda Part 13: Breaking the Language Barrier

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Jan 15, 2019

Filed under: Mass Effect 113 comments

For the first chapter of the game, all the Kett speak in gibberish and you can’t understand any of them. But then we run into the Archon and he speaks to us in English. In the next section we’re going to run into new aliens and it’ll do the same thing: Gibberish, then a sudden switch to plain English when we meet an important character.

In sci-fi, there are several ways you can handle the language problem:

Action Adventure: Everyone speaks / understands English and the audience isn’t supposed to worry about languages. Everyone can usually understand everyone else, even if the audience can’t. (Chewbacca, R2D2, Groot.)

Soft sci-fi: We have magical universal translators so we HEAR everyone in English, even though they’re speaking different languages. (Most of Trek.)

Hard sci-fi: Communication is difficult. If you want to talk to someone, you need to know their language. There are a lot of them, and not all of them are based on sound. Good luck.

Oh no! The aliens are speaking an unknown language! How can we communicate with them? Did the Initiative ever have a plan for this? As it turns out, we just land. Once we touch down, they all switch to English without anyone raising an eyebrow. If they already knew English, then why didn't they respond when we greeted them in English? What's going on? What are the rules here?
Oh no! The aliens are speaking an unknown language! How can we communicate with them? Did the Initiative ever have a plan for this? As it turns out, we just land. Once we touch down, they all switch to English without anyone raising an eyebrow. If they already knew English, then why didn't they respond when we greeted them in English? What's going on? What are the rules here?

I have no idea what Andromeda is trying to do. It’s obvious the writer doesn’t want to worry about it, so why did they introduce the idea of a language barrier in the first place? Why is the Archon suddenly able to talk to us? You’ve explicitly acknowledged that a language barrier exists, and then you’re not explaining how it was overcome!

At one point in the gameDuring the mission to the Meridian space station. SAM has to listen to some alien jabbering and repeat it back to us in English, like an interpreter. In another sceneWhen we’re landing on Aya, the Angaran home. someone refers to “translators”, implying we’re using some sort of Trek-style translator and everyone is really just speaking their own language. Elsewhere you’ll find situations where some Kett speak English and some don’t.

Later in the gameWhen we storm the Kett flagship. we get to a point where you need to open a Kett door using voice activation, and the game gives you two choices: Ryder can try to bluff the door using her imitation of Kett-speak, which is essentially babble. Alternatively, she can command it using plain English. If you choose gibberish, Sara tries to fake her way through making random sounds. Then someone else on the team laughs at her, “What made you think that would work?”

WHY WOULD ANYONE EXPECT ENGLISH TO WORK? BOTH OPTIONS ARE EQUALLY NONSENSICAL!

But for whatever reason, the door opens for English voice commands.

The writer obviously doesn’t care about tackling hard sci-fi language problems, but then they keep bringing up the subject while also changing their unexplained rules on how it all works. This is just as nonsensical as a galaxy where everyone speaks English, but it’s paying all the dialog costs of a more serious form of sci-fi while also distracting us with confusing situations it doesn’t care to explain.

At another point, our squadmate Jaal corrects Ryder on her usage of who / whom. This is strange because he’s from another galaxy and hasn’t had time to learn the nuances of the langage. And this is the type of detail a magical translation machine would simply gloss over. Worse, Addison did the same thing at the start of the game. Why is Mass Effect doing the grammar nazi thing? Why would these two very different characters engage in this same annoying behavior?

At the end of the day, this is a very minor issue. But it’s indicative of the slapdash “too many cooks” problem the game seems to suffer from. It feels like the team never agreed on what kind of game they were making. Different parts of the game were built using different assumptions and it feels like nobody was on the same page.

Escape

I know I've been really harsh on the artists, but I will say the Angaran homeworld looks really good.
I know I've been really harsh on the artists, but I will say the Angaran homeworld looks really good.

The Archon flagship has locked down the Tempest or used a tractor beam or whatever. Once the Archon’s tedious villainous exposition is over, SAM gets control back and the good guys fly into the Scourge to escape the pursuit. That’s a fine idea for an escape. The problem is that the writer does the exact same thing at the very end of the game but every character reacts as if it’s a clever new idea. It’s a bit like having the Ghostbusters do the trick of crossing the streams in the middle of the movie and then again for the big finale. It takes the punch out of the ending.

Anyway, the Tempest escapes but ends up damaged in the pursuit through the scourge. So they must land on the nearest planet, which is where they were headed anyway. When they arrive, they meet the Angaran people. These are the Angarans:

Oh, we're speaking English now? Because a second ago everyone was speaking Angaran. Did someone turn on a translator, or are these people already fluent in English?
Oh, we're speaking English now? Because a second ago everyone was speaking Angaran. Did someone turn on a translator, or are these people already fluent in English?

The Angarans and the Kett are the only two aliens we meet in Andromeda. The writer left behind the Geth, Volus, Hannar, Elchor, Vorcha, Batarian, Quarians, Yahg, Collectors, RachniTo be fair, the Yahg and Collectors aren’t really full species with stories and history, and the Rachni are effectively extinct., and Drell, and to replace them we got the Angara and Kett. We got rid of eleven(!!!) alien species and gained two. This was the writer’s big chance to build a vast new story-world to explore, and they aimed so low and did so little with that opportunity.

Worse, the Angara don’t seem to know anyone besides the Kett. They act like this moment is the first time they ever encountered a friendly species. (And then a little later in the story we see planets where humans and Angarans have been living side-by-side for months. It’s weird.) They’ve been a spacefaring species for centuries and yet we’re the first aliens they’ve ever talked to? The story doesn’t even try to hint that maybe we’re seeing some small corner of a larger whole, and that there are other species out there to meet in future games.

How I’d have done it:

Obviously I’m the sort of writer who would go crazy and invent ten new alien species and give them all personalities and histories and make them all wildly different in terms of physiology and then the modeling and animation team would laugh at me and say “no” because apparently the management doesn’t want to waste money on frivolous things like space aliens in our game about meeting space aliens.

Assuming I’m constrained to a single friendly species, then what we need to do is make it clear we’re only seeing part of a larger whole. The Angara can mention that the scourge keeps explorers and traders away these days, and the Kett pick off everyone else. The Angara are hemmed in this spot between the scourge and the Kett and their fight for survival doesn’t leave them a lot of time for exploration and diplomacy. Maybe Jaal makes reference to some empire or war or other large-scale conflict, but says he’s been fighting the Kett his entire life so he’s never taken much of an interest in events beyond the Heleus Cluster.

I understand if your time and budget constraints force you to make a game “small”, but that doesn’t mean the world itself should be similarly constrained. Even if you don’t show it, hint at it so it can be used next time.

I was really annoyed that this game only gave us two new species, and their faces look so much alike. Then later we learn that the Kett ARE the Angara, so this is intentional. But that means we only really get one new species in this game. I don’t know. No matter how you look at it, it’s disappointing.

Jaal

I wish I could say the same of you, Jaal.
I wish I could say the same of you, Jaal.

Sara gets off the ship to parlay with the Angara while everyone else enacts repairs. The Angara want to figure out if they can trust you or not, because their war with the Kett has made them kinda xenophobic. One of the aliens is Jaal, and he volunteers to join your crew to evaluate your people.

Jaal is a bundle of missed opportunities. If you’re only going to have one alien species in your galaxy, then they need to be really interesting. Unfortunately, the Angara have more in common with humans than humans have in common with the species they brought with them.

To be fair, I really love the performance the actor put into him. He’s got this Shakespearean vibe that makes all of his dialog sound a lot more impressive than it really is. It’s like Ian McKellen’s performance as Gandalf: His intonation makes even mundane dialog sound vaguely profound. But a great actor can’t be expected to carry the work of a weak writer, and so Jaal feels like a drama major in a rubber mask has joined your crew.

As you drive around in the Nomad, there are these short little conversations that you get between pairs of characters. These are pretty good, although these once-per game exchanges have a lower priority than the stupid repetitive notifications characters spew out. So you end up with this:

Jaal: So, Cora… what made you want to leave your home and family to come to Andromeda?

Cora: That’s a big question. I think mostly it’s because-

SAM: Pathfinder: I am detecting a Kett presence ahead.

Cora: Let’s get ’em!

And now you will never hear Cora’s answer because SAM decided to notify you about the opportunity to jump out and shoot a bunch of irrelevant dudes at one of the endless number of outposts the designer has vomited all over the map, and which you could see just fine with your own eyeballs.

Spoiler: He doesn't get particularly emotional.
Spoiler: He doesn't get particularly emotional.

Anyway, some of these exchanges are amusing, but they often work to make the Angarans as boring as possible. Some examples:

At one point Cora notices that Jaal smells really good and she asks him about his cologne. So then I think this is a setup for some misunderstanding and he’s actually just letting off natural pheromones and then it’s all awkward. But no. Apparently the Angara have cologne and in an unbelievable stroke of luck they happen to enjoy the same types of fragrances that humans do.

Cora asks Jaal if he has any brothers and sisters. He replies that he has eight, and Cora asks how he managed with such a large family. And here I (stupidly) expect the writer to create a little misunderstanding and we’ll discoverer that eight is a really tiny family and females typically have litters of a dozen or more. And that’s technically how it is. The problem is that the Angaran have the exact same attitudes about family size as modern-day human beings do. Their families are large, but Jaal is aware that they’re “large” instead of seeing this as normal. He talks about how hard it was growing up with so many brothers and sisters. Our space alien apparently views himself through a human-centric lens.

Jaal ought to have his mind blown when he comes aboard the Tempest. After centuries of isolation, he finds himself on a ship with Human, Asari, Salarian, Turian and Krogan. There are more intelligent alien species inside the Tempest than his people have ever met. This should send a shockwave through his culture. Instead you just get a short comment from him about how well everyone gets along.

I think this is supposed to be an example of the Angaran xenophobia and racism, but it's so milquetoast, understated, and inconsistent that it doesn't leave an impression. Instead of making it feel like the Angara are being held back by their prejudices, it feels like they're occasionally cranky for no reason.
I think this is supposed to be an example of the Angaran xenophobia and racism, but it's so milquetoast, understated, and inconsistent that it doesn't leave an impression. Instead of making it feel like the Angara are being held back by their prejudices, it feels like they're occasionally cranky for no reason.

Jaal explains that Angarans “feel emotions very strongly”. This is how the writer has conceptualized them, but that’s not how they should see themselves! They should see their own behavior as baseline “normal”. If you want to sell the notion that they’re really emotional, then have Jaal comment on how everyone on the Tempest seems repressed or subdued to him. Maybe have him assume we’re all being “guarded” and “Hiding our emotions” or whatever.

As far as I can tell, the writer was trying to employ the Planet of Hats trope, where an alien species is more or less human-like except for one attribute. This attribute – whatever it is – is their “hat”. The planet of hats trope is well-suited to short-form television where you need to quickly introduce an alien and the show’s idea or theme for this episode. It also allows you to take all those obviously human actors and make them seem a little bit alien despite their low-budget minimalist makeup. Maybe you can’t make them seem strange in appearance, but you can at least make them strange in behavior.

Apparently having strong emotions is the hat the Angara are wearing. Once again, the writer seems to be drawing from tropes without knowing what they’re for or how they’re supposed to be used. The strong emotions thing is incredibly inconsistent. On paper, these guys should be the opposite of Trek Vulcans. They should be wearing their emotions on their sleeve. I’d expect them to be passionate, impulsive, and hotheaded. At best, this comes down to Jaal telling us his people are emotional. It feels less like they have strong emotions and more like they’re just emotionally random. In a game where the facial animations are so janky, having a species defined entirely by their capacity to emote seems like a disastrous design choice.

Even if the animators were up to the job, this is still a bad choice because it doesn’t tell us anything about them in a cultural sense.

Everything is fine.
Everything is fine.

How I’d have done it:

I really think this “strong emotions” angle is a bad one for space aliens from another galaxy for all the reasons I listed above. But I guess if it was my job to make this work I’d imagine a planet of people that act like teenagers from a Shakespearean tragedy. They would be prone to feuds. They would probably suffer from a lot of one-on-one public duels over personal honor. You’d have to be careful to avoid wounding their pride, but they would be fierce allies once you won them over. They would constantly be professing undying love and then losing interest when the next wave of hormones hit and sent them after a new mate. They would be full of lust for life and prone to debauchery. They would have countless holidays and all of them would be an excuse to drink and feast. Dwarves are often portrayed as rowdy drunks who love food, and you could probably borrow that idea for these guys. They would be very serious about honoring the dead. Perhaps they should have intense familial bonds and build a lot of their identity around their heritage.

Still, this doesn’t really fit with their premise, which is that (spoiler) they’re synthetic beings who were bio-engineered to inhabit this cluster. By “synthetic” I don’t mean they’re robots. I mean they’re synthetic in the sense that they were developed by some unknown alien intelligence rather than being a product of evolution. Why did their creator give them “strong emotions”? Was this an aesthetic choice, or did the creator see some practical value in the emotions? I’m not saying it’s a plot hole that we don’t find the answer to this question, I’m saying it’s odd that the writer never thought to bring it up. They had the makings of an interesting mystery here and they skated around it without even noticing.

The strong emotions thing would be really hard to do properly, and at the end of the day it’s just a really fancy hat. Personally, I’d prefer to do something else. If I found myself on a project like Andromeda where the team is lacking in focus and there doesn’t seem to be a singular vision, then I’d aim for something really easy. We could say that the Angaran homeworld has a strong axial tilt. This would mean that their seasons are really pronounced. This would make them a bit migratory before their space-faring days. As an interstellar species, this would manifest as a desire to travel light. They would get restless if stuck in one place for too long and their culture would have a huge emphasis on the season. Their language would be filled with sayings regarding the changing of seasons and the weather.

That’s not deep and it’s not clever, but it’s something every writer could work with and use in conversation without making a mess of things. Also, unlike “strong emotions” this wouldn’t require a bunch of expensive emoting.

Whatever. Even if we’re forced to go with “strong emotions” as our hat, this entire premise suffers from a flagrant case of telling instead of showing. The most important thing to remember when designing aliens is that everyone sees their own physiology / mating habits / culture as the default “normal”, and everyone else in relation to that. Aliens don’t say, “Our species is very warlike,” they say, “Your species is so afraid of conflict.” They don’t say, “Our families are large”, they say “Your families are tiny, how do you keep from going extinct?”.

You get the idea. I know Trek fell into the bad habit of forehead of the week. Trek could afford to have throwaway aliens because a TV show can give you two dozen episodes a year, but you only get to make a new videogame every three or four years. If you’re only going to give the player ONE new alien, then you really ought to do something more interesting than “I have blue skin and allegedly strong emotions”.

 

Footnotes:

[1] During the mission to the Meridian space station.

[2] When we’re landing on Aya, the Angaran home.

[3] When we storm the Kett flagship.

[4] To be fair, the Yahg and Collectors aren’t really full species with stories and history, and the Rachni are effectively extinct.



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113 thoughts on “Andromeda Part 13: Breaking the Language Barrier

  1. Vinsomer says:

    this entire premise suffers from a flagrant case of telling instead of showing.

    Really, this entire game suffers from a flagrant case of telling instead of showing.

    For instance, Cora. She goes on and on about how she’s an Asari commando, and how living among the Asari changed her. What she doesn’t do is show this through her interactions with the Asari, at least not as much, and not before we’ve already lost interest in her character because being constantly told she’s an Asari commando is just not interesting on any level. And when she does, it’s just pointing out some reference to some Asari text or cultural detail, not anything that would make players think back to all the different Asari we’ve seen and how they’ve interacted with each other. Is it any surprise she’d dubbed an ‘Asariboo’ by critics?

    Likewise, the Archon is a villain who is so laughably bad because his actions do nothing to actually increase tension in the narrative. So you end up with a villain spouting generic lines which are meant to be threatening but which do nothing other than put his failure to be intimidating on any level into focus. And this is from someone who thought his design wasn’t as bad as Shamus did – or at least not as bad as he was written.

    It’s a shame because there are moments in the game that are decent, some are even good. But too much of it is half-baked and amateurish, and that goes beyond the meme-worthy animations.

    1. Coming Second says:

      If she actually was an Asariboo, that would’ve been a fun thing to play with. Like all the actual Asari find her eye-rolling because she’s the exchange kid who came back dressed in a kimono, certain they’ve completely absorbed the culture. She’s constantly uttering Asari phrases that turn out to be woefully translated, or what she thinks ‘By the Goddess!’ is is actually ‘I’m a dumb stinky beige skin’. If you’re going to make a character one dimensional at least lean into it, have fun with her. Maybe have her grow beyond it and thereby make her sympathetic.

      I know making a video game is a very arduous process that has unique difficulties with iteration and revision, but I’m certain modern day Bioware make writing look a lot harder than it actually is.

      1. Vinsomer says:

        I think the real problem was a lack of time. I’m sure that a lot of the worst dialogue would have been fixed with more editing, the huge flaws in entire character arcs would have been addressed, and characters wuld have more of those nuanced or fun little things that make characters so memorable.

        I mean, for a Citadel-style side story, I think that Cora being an Asariboo would be great, but it could clash a bit with the rest of the game when we’re at least supposed to take characters seriously, and not to be complete idiots (I know, kinda hard with the game as it is) but for a specific side story with a different tone, it’d work fine. Kind of like Traynor in ME3, who is serious in ME3’s main story despte having a few quirks,

        After all, writing is like game development, in a way – you can never get all the bugs and you’ll drive yourself crazy trying. You just have to polish it as much as you can, to the point where nobody but nitpickers notice the majority of flaws. Which is why nitpickers who go looking for problems will always find them, regardless of how vaunted their targets are nitpicking’s fun and all, but should be taken too seriously.

        1. Jbc31187 says:

          I’ve been thinking about whether MA2 would be better if they had ditched the main plot. Just Shep and his quirky band of space vigilantes and exhibitionist malcontents and singing salarian scientists tooling about getting into trouble. Probably not, but it allow for people like Cora without breaking immersion.

          1. Vinsomer says:

            I mean… if you want a bioware game with no main plot, look at Dragon Age 2.

            While there’s a lot of bad stuff in that game, I think the lack of direction (and resolution), combined with the rapid escalation of Act 3, are a big part of why that game is bad.

            What you’d end up with is a game that feels very fanfiction-like. Characters thrown together because ‘hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…’ rather than because of a sensible, believable story.

        2. Gruhunchously says:

          I mean, look at Mordin. He’s a quirky, funny scientist who sings Gilbert and Sullivan, but he’s also a key figure in one of the most morally grey and emotionally fraught subplots in the entire series, and he plays both roles excellently so one doesn’t detract from the other. Having a character with that’s a bit over the top and silly traits can work if they know when to shut up and get serious when the story demands it. It’s a key part of turning what could be a funny sideshow into well-rounded character.

          1. Vinsomer says:

            I think the difference is Mordin’s quirks don’t call his competence into question. If anything, the fact that he can juggle complex scientific research and experiements with show tunes shows how capable he is.

            But Cora not actaly knowing anything about the Asari she claims so much kinship with makes her look stupid, no doubt about that. And in a game where forging new relationships with alien races is a big part of the story’s central conceit, havng a second in command who is unaware of how bad she is at that is… not a good thing.

            I’m all for giving Cora more to work with. I did like the fact that she was a botanist, even if the game did very little with this. I just think that having all characters be competent (ahem, Liam) is important, otherwise that makes the player question why the characters are even there. And once players start thinking in meta ways like that, it’s practically the end of them enjoying the game in any intended fashion.

            I also think that’s a reason why the Gil/Kallo argument is so bad – it’s the kind of thing that should be resolved immediately, not lead to workplace bickering that needs the boss to sort out, and the fact that the issue escalates just makes the two look incompetent.

            1. Gethsemani says:

              With the risk of being too political, the problem with Cora’s Asariboo tendency is that she’s an unwitting example of cultural appropriation, with the writers seeming completely unaware of it. As has been mentioned, Cora keeps fawning over everything Asari and keeps dropping in Asari expressions, Asari philosophy and whatever else is Asari related in all her conversations, which makes her come off as an utter Asariboo and someone who’s way too obsessed with an alien culture. Yet the game treats her seriously and when she meets Asari on the Asari ark she is given due respect from them, despite her being a human that’s essentially trying to one up said Asari’s in matters related to the Asari. I mean, this is like the pastiest white guy you know who did an exchange year in Japan coming to Japan and acting as if he understand Japanese culture and customs better then actual Japanese people. In real life, he’d get the iciest reception possible. In Andromeda, Cora gets hailed as a “true Asari”.

              It is bad writing because it makes Cora come off as a tool without the game recognizing that she does (see also: Liam, PeeBee), but it is made even worse because Bioware is generally good with the whole sensitive representation thing. With Cora they’ve gone and made her core personality trait an aspect of a really contentious real life issue without seemingly understanding that they’ve done it. I mean, had it been recognized it could have been an actual, effective character arc ending with Cora either toning down her Asaribooness or re-affirming that she can identify with the Asari even if she is a human. Instead it never gets mentioned to any serious effect.

              1. Mattias42 says:

                Although I think you have a point… The Asari way of life is ALL about adding new and shiny things to their culture. Including… uhh, ‘acquiring’ new gene-patterns, if you will.

                Granted, being ‘that hot, muscly, and exotic alien soldier chick that would be even hotter if she shut her stupid, stupid fool mouth’ isn’t what I’d call a positive character interpretation by any means, but it might explain why the Asari go so easy on her.

                Still, yeah, the player being able to call Cora on that, even if she brushes you off? Would have been nice.

                1. Sleeping Dragon says:

                  Or we could turn it around, after all Asari consider themselves the dominant species of our galaxy and this could actually tell us something new about them, and after three games featuring them rather prominently. The Asari are supposedly known, as a species, primarily as diplomats. The first trilogy suggests if not outright states (I actually can’t remember) that that cycle was unusual in that the dominant species went the “federation” rather than “domination” route. Through Cora embracing their culture and them embracing her in return we could actually get a glimpse of them being happy about someone realising how superior their society was, maybe get a hint of “yeah, we’re polite so we say it doesn’t matter but it’s nice when someone outside of our species actually pay attention to the stuff beyond ‘strippers and biotics'” or “you know, life would actually be a lot of easier if all the aliens just embraced the Asari ways like this one” attitudes.

              2. Gruhunchously says:

                Okay, wading into a controversial subject here, but as I understand it, cultural (mis)appropriation is taking something of sanctity from a culture and trivializing it by using it in improper context or as a minor accessory. Obviously, what counts as ‘trivializing’ can be murky waters, but it generally has to do with respect and proper deference to the culture in question. Like, there’s a world of difference between Logan Paul using Japanese culture as a cheap backdrop to promote his own publicity and an over-excited weeb putting their foot in their mouth around actual Japanese people. The latter is patronizing but can be resolved with some conversation and correction, while the former is a blatant act of disrespect.

                People who spend lots of time among another culture tend to start adopting colloquialisms from that culture, even unconsciously. Cora’s behavior doesn’t strike me as attempts to appropriate or trivialize elements from the asari, just a bit of an irritating obsession with their culture, which isn’t necessarily disrespectful or worthy of severe condemnation.

                Also, power dynamics play a role in what is considered appropriation, and the asari are the single most powerful species in Citadel Space. Most other species respect them, trade with them, eat their dishes, drink their drinks, live on their worlds, and Thane mentions that their philosophy and religion has spread across species as well. No matter what Cora does, their culture is omnipresent enough to put a stop to any disrespect they might perceive.

                PLEASE NOTE: I’m not trying to defend the writing, how one-note Cora’s asari obsession is or how much of a missed opportunity it represents. I’m just trying to draw a distinction between the sharing of culture between people (species) and disrespectful appropriation.

                1. Jbc31187 says:

                  Part of the power dynamics though, is that while the Asari are one of the dominant cultures, they aren’t supposed to be. So much of the Mass Effect series is spent on “lol stupid aliens humans r superior” that I forgot that the Asari were supposed to be a military and economic powerhouse, except when the script says we’Re supposed to be angry at them for something.

                  You have an excellent point and it would be interesting to see it play out, but the script is such that I can’t trust the game to say anything meaningful or not nonsensical.

    2. BlueBlazeSpear says:

      Cora also has this weird character beat when things come to a head (of sorts) about Ryder being Pathfinder instead of her and her big realization is that she’s not particularly upset because while some people are born leaders, she’s a born follower – whether that be with Sarissa and the Asari Commandos, with Alec Ryder, or now with Sara Ryder. Which is almost interesting and could explain why she’s so hot for the Asari Commando stuff, but then why make the moment so forgettable and put it long after we’ve burned out on hearing about the Commandos or blandly discussing Alec’s transfer of power. By the time this conversation happens, the player tends to be like “Who cares?”

      1. Vinsomer says:

        I think that the game is simply too afraid to challenge the player to have Cora disagree with the player becoming Pathfinder. Which is why that conversation comes so late (after you’ve already earned Cora’s loyalty), and why Cora is so passive throughout the game. The only interesting source of drama in her character is cast aside because, well, we can’t threaten the player’s fantasy of being the best, most special person in the galaxy. Again, it’s tell, not show: have Cora tell us that she felt one way, while for all that time she said and did nothing to actually show this internal conflict or emotion.

        1. BlueBlazeSpear says:

          There actually are times when the game attempts to create some friction between protagonists and every attempt is annoying and pointless. Pretty much all of Liam’s Nomad banter is him being pointed and rude toward fellow squadmates and it never feels like he has a point or a reason for it.

          And in what’s arguably the worst interpersonal conflict of protagonists in the game, there’s a thoroughly annoying and ongoing argument between the pilot Kallo and the engineer Gil about how to maintain The Tempest. It’s frustrating and intrusive, it has zero stakes, and it adds absolutely nothing to the game. It’ screams “This is a manufactured conflict because we’re trying to be deep!” But it just makes me resent two secondary characters that I might’ve otherwise liked. By the time this conflict comes to a head, I’m so sick of it that I wish there were an option to tell them both to GTFO off my ship.

          When I consider that, I start to think that it’s probably for the best that they didn’t make a proper attempt of having conflict with Cora.

          1. Vinsomer says:

            The Liam Nomad banter is just awful.

            I think the difference with Cora is that this is a conflict that’s so logical that its omission hurts the game far more than it helps it, unlike the other manufactured conflicts which. For example, when you escape the base on Voeld with the Moshae, you can either blow it up, kiling the remaining captives, or help the captives escape, knowing that the Kett will reclaim the faciity and continue to exalt other people. Seems like an obvious setup, right? No right answer, and whatever you pick, you’ll be confronted by either the Moshae or Jaal. The problem with this choice is it’s obviously contrived: realistically, either side could be mad at you for ether choice so it’s really not grounded in character, and the more you think about the choice the more obvious the question of ‘why not both?’ becomes. Choices should really stem from character first – that way, they make sense. Just like many of the choices in Dragon Age, where approval systems center around character first, ad crating a sense of balance second.

            It’d be a different kind of confrontation to Liam’s dialogue for a few other reasons:

            1. Cora’s ire would be directed at the player-character, not another character who we may like or not like enough to be invested in the conflict. It’d be more like the Virmire survivor criticising Shepard for joining Cerberus during ME2, something many disliked.

            2. The player didn’t exactly choose to become pathfinder, so it’d feel like the player being blamed for something out of their control. Which, in most cases, I’d agree with, but consistent and logical characterisation has to take precedent over making the player feel good in a sci-fi universe like this, where all of its interconnected parts fitting together in a grand tableau of the galaxy is a large part of the game’s appeal. Otherwise, you end up with Game of Thrones s7 storytelling – which tries to give the audience all the big story beats it thinks they want, but which makes no sense because it has to bend over backwards to do this. In other words, it’s hard to enjoy a story when it obviously doesn’t make sense either on a character (which is really a dramatic) level, or the level of simple logic.

            3. The argument would obviously at some point come to a head, unlike Liam’s endless bitching which never leads to anything. Liam feels more like someone who is passive-aggressive,

            4. Crucially, Cora is right. Cora should be pathfinder. She was trained for it, Ryder wasn’t. Cora’s background is as part of a species-exchange program, meaning she has experience in exactly the kind of alien interactions a pathfinder might find themselves in. Ryder was… a security guard. in one of the safest (and least action-heavy) sectors of the galaxy. And look at that! I just made Cora’s asariboo-ness actually matter, while simultaneously giving her more depth and something to talk about.

  2. Jack V says:

    I still love reading these write-ups even though I’ve never made time to play most of these games.

    Huh. I think “showing some alien language and switching to showing everyone speaking english when everyone involved shares a language” can work reasonably well at showing that people do speak alien languages but minimising the barrier for audience comprehension. Either in non-sf settings with normal human languages, where you show someone in a foreign country and hearing people speaking local language, but switching to all-English for conversations (whether that’s because the protagonists always find people who speak English, or they speak that language, or something even more handwave-y). Like, that gives the *impression* of a foreign country. And the same can work in SF, whether you assume translators (but only after you set them up) or whatever.

    But it only works if you either have a consistent policy, or if you want to hand-wave it, you don’t draw attention to it. Doing both sucks. Like in Doctor Who, they always ignored this, and then made up some hand-wave-explanation about magic Tardis technology that made everyone who travelled speak the local language, and then some writers got “clever” and started delving into jokes about it and implications, which were lovely in isolation, but just undermined the whole “not looking too closely” deal the audience had had.

    1. Lino says:

      Actually, the show Vikings (awesome show, just ignore the last season) did an amazing job at this. Whenever we meet a new nationality, they start speaking in their native language, with subtitles (the team had consulted historians on how the language should sound). About 3-4 lines in, the characters switch to speaking in English (i.e. the audience’s “universal translator” kicks in).
      But sometimes they break this rule. E.g., when they meet the Northumbrians for the first time, our Viking characters talk in English, but the Northumbrians talk in a language that neither the Vikings nor the audience understands (Old English, if I’m not mistaken), and as a viewer, it makes you empathize with our Viking protagonists, because – just like them – you can’t understand anything!
      Of course, that empathy kind of ends when they start killing and pillaging, but that’s one of the reasons I love this show – all of the characters are believable and feel like real people, and no matter what they do, you can understand the reasoning behind it.

      1. Ravens Cry says:

        The film of The Hunt for Red October did something like this, having some subtitled Russian and then switching to English, until, spoilers, the Americans come on the sub, switching back to Russian except when the Russians are themselves speaking English.

        1. Lino says:

          I just remembered that the Max Payne reboot did the same thing. Max was in Rio de Janeiro, and he didn’t speak Portuguese. So whenever someone talked to him in Portuguese, there were no subtitles. And since most players don’t understand the language, most of us felt just as lost as Max. So even though I hate what the game did to the character and the franchise, this was one aspect of it I really like.

      2. Lars says:

        The game Outcast did the language thing extremely well. The Talanians have their own language and you hear it all the time. But the prophet Kazar and the actual ruler Fae Ran taught them English language, so they can talk to the Ulukai. Some are better in this, some are not. The player/Ulukai/Cutter Slade can understand everything important but has to learn parts of the Talan language for context/details.

    2. BlueHorus says:

      Angaran transmission: Jata Bata Wanna Needy Bo.
      Ryder: What’re they saying?
      SAM: This language is new. It bears some similarity to Kett, however. Stand by…
      Angaran: Jata Bata Wanna Needy Bo!
      Ryder: …SAM?
      (pause)
      Angaran: Jata Bata Wanna Needy Bo! Needy Bo!
      Ryder: SAM? they sound pissed!
      SAM: Stand by. Processing…
      Angaran : JATA BATA WANNA! NEEDY BO! JATA *Crackle* – entering Angaran Space! Identify yourself! I repeat! You are entering-
      SAM: Analysis complete.
      Ryder: Can we reply? Will they understand?
      SAM: *electronic beeping* Yes. Go ahead.

      That doesn’t seem like a hard scene to put in. Of course, you’d needan editor, or more time in production to spot it do so…

      And you can even work in jokes and worldbuilding afterwards:

      Angaran Guard: Needy Jata Wanna Bata.
      SAM: In order to see their leader, you will need to get naked. Leave you clothes here.
      Ryder: Wait, what?!
      SAM: *Beep* Apologies. The Angaran for ‘clothes’ is almost the same as the word for ‘weapons’. The guard wants you to relinquish your weapons before he lets you in.
      Liam: Oh. What kind of culture has those words be so similar?
      Cora: *Putting down gun* One that’s been fighting to survive for centuries, I guess.

      1. Matthew Collins says:

        It’s always sad when the dialogue thought up in two minutes by someone commenting in a place like this is more interesting, appealing, amusing (while being contextually appropriate) and even revealing/interesting from a worldbuilding and character perspective than what we get in the game.

        That last little joke/worldbuilding detail succeeds in upfront selling the idea of the angara resistance and their history without actually running afoul of “show, don’t tell”, gives us some emotional weight to them in that they’re immediately both sympathetic and simultaneously rousing our sense of worry, upping the vague sense of tension about meeting these aliens while “humanising” them (for want of a better word) — and you even gave Cora an asari-esque sense of maturity in perspective and long-term consideration, without having her say “as an Asari Commando I was taught to think long term and get into the minds of aliens.”

        Good show, and arguably saddening for what it says about some of the game writing.

        1. Liessa says:

          Not to mention conveying that SAM isn’t infallible, and throwing in a nice little reference to Star Wars: KOTOR for good measure.

        2. Gwinyster says:

          It is the power of the hindsight, unfortunately. A lot of mistakes seem really obvious once the work is released, and you see the actual massive feedback. The author’s eye can (and will) get blurred by his own work, and correctly predicting what is good and what is bad becomes really difficult. Of course, this is not an excuse. Excellent authors manage to write something decent from the very beginning. Then they test the idea, show it to a wide range of different people, looking at how they will react on it. It still does not protect from glaring mistakes sometimes, but it usually does improve the work considerably.

      2. Raygereio says:

        Personally I would have hated that far more.
        I think when it comes to the concept of language barriers you either focus the story on it and actually develop it (for example, StarGate the movie). Or you just completely ignore it as much as possible (StarGate the show).
        You can use the old tired cliche of the universal translator as a handwave tool. But when stories do that, they often end up dancing up and down on the fact how silly the concept of a universal translator is and how not-alien the aliens are.

        My personal rule of thumb is: Is it actually important to the story? No? Then don’t bother with it. Just move on to what does matter.
        If your story is actually good and can take the audience along for a comfortable ride, no one will care if you don’t explain every little detail.

  3. Kathryn says:

    Your description of “strong emotion” aliens sounds kinda like Klingons. (Not in a bad way)

    The language question is my personal “But what do they EAT” issue. I could give a dozen examples of times I’ve been derailed by trying to figure out what languages people are speaking and which ones they understand.

    I have never played Mass Effect – are they really speaking English in the Mass Effect universe? In Star Wars, they are speaking Basic, not English – we’re watching in Translation Convention. (Edit: Yes, I’m THAT nerd.)

    1. Gargamel Le Noir says:

      Do you watch College Humor’s “Um Actually”? They stumped the candidates by playing on that distinction, it was pretty fun.

    2. ShivanHunter says:

      Mass Effect canon says there are Trek-style translators – I’m not 100% on the details, but I think they’re compiled from known languages, rather than figuring out new languages on-the-fly like in Trek. So, meeting new aliens should pose a language barrier problem, but this should be a non-issue with the Angara, since they already know humans (Exiles). It’s this cacophony of inconsistent details: the writer obviously doesn’t want to deal with it, but it’s a problem anyway, then it magically goes away, and it should never have been an issue in the first place.

      Not a huge issue, but another nail in the no-one-really-thought-this-setting-through-did-they coffin.

    3. Echo Tango says:

      I also immediately thought of Klingons. Apparently the writers of the sci-fi game have never watched or read any other sci-fi in their lives. :S

      1. Matthew Downie says:

        Although Klingons are a good example of an emotion-over-logic race, Klingon language has very similar mysterious inconsistencies with how the universal translator randomly stops working sometimes when they’re around.

        1. Echo Tango says:

          Hey, I never said Trek was infallible. :P

    4. Joe Informatico says:

      Whenever an alien species is described as having “strong emotions”, it usually means “they get angry easily”, or occasionally “suddenly burst into a hearty laugh”, usually to diffuse the tension of whether they’re going to attack. It almost never means “they cry a lot” or “they mope around” or “laugh at everything even when it’s inappropriate”.

      TOS Trek understood this: when Spock lost control of his emotions he’d be as likely to laugh or cry or fall in love as fly into a rage, while the Kelvan-verse Trek movies equate Spock losing control of his emotions with flying off the handle into a berzerker fury. Same with the Klingons: TOS Klingons were passionate, but that could be expressed as ruthless (Kor from “Errand of Mercy”), conniving (the Klingon diplomat in “Friday’s Child”), irreverent (Koloth from “The Trouble with Tribbles”), cunning (the Kahless copy as depicted in “The Savage Curtain”), or even surprisingly tender (Kang and Mara in “Day of the Dove”). TNG-era Klingons either get angry, or laugh heartily talking about past battles over bloodwine before a brawl breaks out.

    5. NAMENAMENAMENAME says:

      Like a lot of things, the original ME had a codex entry on the subject, turns out everyone has universal translators. These translators weren’t magic however and instead relied on the translation device having up to date dictionaries of every language spoken. This doesn’t work for Andromeda because in this particular instance there should be no handy Angaran/Kett to English dictionaries, yet in these early scenes the game flips from the new aliens being incomprehensible and speaking perfect English (or whatever language you’ve set the game to).

    6. Chagdoo says:

      Mass effect codex lover here! Yeah they all use translators, but you constantly have to download the latest colloquialisms and dialects from the extranet. Learning to speak a language for real is seen as a hell of a classy move. There are a few back woods planets these translaters don’t quite work on because they aren’t in the system.

      Sadly none of this is ever brought up in any game. It couldve been pretty darn fun

    7. Dreadjaws says:

      Edit: Yes, I’m THAT nerd

      I don’t wanna sound like a jerk or anything, but this is pretty common knowledge. It’s not some sort of obscure fact that only the nerdiest of the nerds have access to.

      1. Erik says:

        I don’t wanna sound like a jerk or anything, but

        If your sentence starts with “I don’t want to sound like X, but…”, you should almost always replace the comma with a period and delete the rest.

        Frankly, taking someone’s self-deprecating joke and calling it out for being TOO self-deprecating? Yeah, that really does sound like a jerk.

        1. Dreadjaws says:

          Meanwhile, you take no effort or embarrassment at all in being a jerk, huh?

      2. Kathryn says:

        I wasn’t referring to knowing it but rather to being compelled to bring it up/make the correction (Shamus refers to Star Wars as an example of everyone speaking English) even though it’s not really germane to Shamus’s point. Sorry it was unclear.

    8. beleester says:

      In ME, they have translators. They almost never draw attention to it, but they do introduce one race, the Elcor, which speaks very oddly (“With great sarcasm, it was a wonderful performance”) because they communicate a lot of things nonverbally, so they have to explicitly state the emotion in their speech for other races to understand it.

      It also leads into a nice joke in ME3, where you can overhear a conversation along the lines of:
      “Wait, did you hack your translator so that it would lie about your inflections?”
      “With such sincerity that disbelieving would be considered an insult, no.”

  4. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    Mass Effect is using translator technology since ME1. The codex entry was pretty cool, explaining that even Batarians publish translation softwares so they can export their propaganda, and the Hanar have light-based versions.
    The justification as to why Kett and Angarans can understand English is that they’ve been confronted with the exiles. That doesn’t explain why the pathfinder team would understand *them*, since translators are useful to understand but normally don’t change your outgoing speech. And they sure as fuck don’t translate your grammar errors.
    And that doesn’t explain why sometimes we couldn’t understand the Kett/Angarans and sometimes we could. What I would have done would have been to have 1) The team not understand the Kett during first contact, but realizing to their horror that the Kett understood them perfectly with no clue as to how that’s possible 2) have the team receive Milky Way-compatible translation software from the Archon at the start of the parley, to their visible confusion. Then when we learn that they got those from the Exiles, the heroes would be openly worried about the amount of information the Kett extracted from them, and how smart it really was to exile them in the first place.

    Having only two new races makes a lot of sense actually, since we are only in one sector. In the milky way intelligent races seemed more common thanks to the mass relays. Having one intelligent race evolve in one sector (the precursors, which created the Angarans) then having another come by to hunt them is fine by me. What isn’t is how uninteresting and western human they made the Angarans.

    1. Lino says:

      The strange thing is that the possible solution you give isn’t something that would require months of development time and resources – it’s just a matter of 5-6 short lines of dialogue (it doesn’t even need to be a pre-rendered cutscene!).
      The problem is that apparently no one on the team even thought this would be a problem, meaning that no one even thought of world-building as something important and integral to any form of fiction – no matter the setting (yes, even fiction set in the real world needs at least a bit of world-building).

    2. Syal says:

      And they sure as fuck don’t translate your grammar errors.

      I’m picturing a world where the translator doesn’t understand how to translate grammar errors, and will just throw an error message That’s why everyone keeps correcting Ryder; using ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’ makes it literally incomprehensible to the other species.

  5. onodera says:

    Very interesting article. I haven’t played ME:A having heard about their multiple problems, but it’s eye-opening to actually see how inept their writing and world-building actually is.

    I wonder if we’ll ever see a game with Lemian aliens instead of Trekian aliens: unhumanlike and practically incomprehensible in their motivations. I’ll even settle for Eden-like level of confusion, with scientists from both sides actually making an effort to communicate. ME1 was a step in the right direction, with Volus, Elcor and Hanar, but in the end the rubber foreheads won.

  6. Karma The Alligator says:

    If you choose gibberish, Sara tries to fake her way through making random sounds.

    So a call back to the Noveria’s activation code for the neutron purge (there are a lot of call backs, aren’t there)? Did they at least make it as funny?

    Why do the Angarans look so much like somewhat melted action figures in that screenshot?

    Even the animators were up to the job,

    Probably should be “Even if”

    1. Dreadjaws says:

      (there are a lot of call backs, aren’t there)

      To the point of being painfully irritating. This game just refuses to have an identity.

  7. Dev Null says:

    Typo: “Even the animators were up to the job”

    Probably wanted an “if”…

  8. ShivanHunter says:

    The Angara “having strong emotions” comes through so little in the actual game I literally didn’t remember it being a thing at all. It still baffles me that they did so little with the setting. You can’t have “planet of hats” if there’s only one species in your galactic community (since the Kett, as Designated Bad Guys, don’t count), and then forget to have any of the characters actually wear the hat (though you could chalk that up to Andromeda’s stilted, flat dialogue in general).

    I swear one of these posts is going to make me reinstall Mass Effect 1 again. I wonder if those texture mods have been updated recently…

    1. BlueBlazeSpear says:

      There was a Reddit thread where someone asked “Why are the Angara always telling us how emotional they are?” and my response was “How else are we supposed to know?”

      They are walking, talking examples of a writer telling instead of showing.

      1. Matthew Downie says:

        See, they Angara are actually a race that thinks emotions are a flaw (and that this is too obvious to be worth mentioning). They perceive their own human-like emotions as excessive, and suppress them as far as they can. They describe themselves as very emotional because that’s how they see themselves; more emotional than they ought to be.

        Similarly, if you time-travelled to medieval Europe and the people described themselves as “sinful and corrupt”, this would say more about their religious beliefs than it would about how corrupt they actually are.

        It’s really a very sophisticated show-not-tell technique that only clever people like me can understand. (Or, more likely, it’s bad writing. I haven’t played it.)

        1. Pinkhair says:

          Like Puddleglum the Marsh wiggle, from The Silver Chair!

    2. Geebs says:

      I thought the Angarans’ characterisation was deliberately supposed to cater to the denizens of Bioware’s forums who played their games primarily to go to intersting places, meet interesting people/aliens, and have creepy inappropriate-in-the-workplace sex with them (pretty sure this was even emphasised as part of the PR campaign).

      Then they made the Angara incredibly boring and closed their forums, so I guess the implementation of that plan was as half-arsed as the rest of Andromeda.

    3. RFS-81 says:

      I swear one of these posts is going to make me reinstall Mass Effect 1 again.

      Same! I’m just not sure what character I’m going to play. I already played as female Engineer Paragon (switched to infiltrator for ME2) and male Vanguard Renegade. I feel like I should give the Soldier class a try, but using many different weapons is a rather boring superpower.

  9. James Stanfield says:

    The sad thing is that in Ghost Recon Wildlands, a game where the story is basically set dressing, if your radio conversations get interrupted by a gun battle than it’ll stop; when the fight’s finished the main character Nomad will actually say something like “Sorry about that, where were we?” and the conversation resumes from where it was before the fighting broke out. It was a really neat little touch that made the experience better, all for a story that was just nonsense.

    1. Lino says:

      I think something like this could have been implemented in Andromeda. It’s probably a lot more difficult to program than it sounds (like a lot of things are in games), but for a series that 99% of the people play for the characters and the interactions they have with each other, it would have definitely been worth it.

      1. Echo Tango says:

        It would actually be pretty easy to program. Either you use the same triggers that make the enemy sound effects to detect when to shut off dialog, or you use the actual sound levels at the player-character’s position. After the noise is done, resume playback. Build in some buffer-time at the end, in case the player can’t hear dialog very well / they’ve got their volume set weird, and back up in the dialog a sentence or two[1] if you feel it helps.

        [1] Bonus points for the characters starting with a better-sounding equivalent of “We got cut off; I’ll re-iterate my last couple points, just to get us back on track.”

        1. Syal says:

          I’d just put a radio button somewhere so the player can resume at their convenience.

      2. Karma The Alligator says:

        Even if it was just restarting the conversation from the start (which I imagine would be easier to implement than keeping track of where you got interrupted), it’d be worth it.

      3. Joe Informatico says:

        ME:A obviously brought this over from the Dragon Age games, where your companions will chat while you’re walking around (ME1 had the elevator conversations, but those were scripted events of fixed duration hiding a loading screen). But there most extended conversations happened in towns where combat encounters were rare, and when they did happen you could usually see them coming a long ways off, and with your walking speed the conversation would be wrapped up by the time you got there. But in ME:A, SAM insists on blathering every bit of information (e.g. telling you about the presence of resources mere seconds after a pop-up tooltip already said you can mine here) and given how fast the Nomad is usually going you end up barging right into these dialogue triggers.

        1. Trevor says:

          You can force your way out of the intra-party banter in Dragon Age: Origins if you really want to. Like Joe says, it usually happens in towns and if you want to stop Morrigan and Alistair from sniping at each other you can talk to one of the peasants in the town. This ends the Morrigan/Alistair dialogue and brings you to the peasant dialog.

          The conversations always happen when you’re on an extended walk. I never experienced my party starting a conversation the half second before I initiated conversation with an NPC so that I accidentally cancelled their banter.

          But no, thanks, SAM. I definitely needed to know about the mining node in the area and not about the backstories of my party members.

    2. Hal says:

      I don’t know about nonsense, but the story is very easy to ignore for the mechanics. Yeah, yeah, go here, shoot this dude, do it quietly (or not.) Very hard to pay attention to any of it if you’re playing it with friends, too (which I did, and made for a fantastic experience.)

      Great game, though. Loved playing it the whole way through, even if it was patently ridiculous at times.

    3. Dreadjaws says:

      Red Dead Redemption 2 does the same. It’s really not a hard to implement system, the Andromeda developers just didn’t seem to care.

  10. Coming Second says:

    Having the Angara be the only sapient species in the cluster is on the face of it a brave decision which could’ve set Andromeda in contrast to the sprawling menagerie of the original trilogy. It could have enabled the team to concentrate very specifically on the Angara, making them a multi-faceted people with different factions and ethnicities that react differently to the Milky Way mob. We could’ve seen the slow, difficult process of liaising with them, learning their language and the optimal ways of interacting with them. We could’ve observed their shock at discovering all these other, intelligent species crammed together in lifeboats, so advanced and yet so fragile. The tension of doing all this with the Kett breathing down our necks, the need to get potential allies up to speed as quickly as possible.

    I feel like this sort of thing is exactly what a whole new galaxy was promising the audience: the experience of meeting real aliens for the first time in a hostile, desparate situation. And even more frustratingly, Bioware seemed to know that and set the scene up perfectly for it! God, when you see the potential of it and compare to the actuality it’s all so wretchedly disappointing.

  11. BlueBlazeSpear says:

    Jaal is a frustrating character to me. Of the six squadmates you have, he’s the only one who is, theoretically, vital to the story. He’s our hands-on connection to the Heleus Cluster. He’s our bridge to the Angara. Not only that, but he has connections to all of the major factions of the Angara – their leadership, their military (which, oddly, is still called The Resistance), and the “evil” faction (the Roekaar) who hate all things Milky Way right along with their hatred for the Kett. He should be eyeballs-deep in all of the goings on, but he somehow manages to feel unimportant to anything that’s happening. He seems just as clueless and confused about the cluster and what’s going on in it as the Pathfinder. Who has just arrived.

    It’s a viable choice to only go with two new alien species, but that just means you better bring it with their designs. And while you’re bringing it, you better increase it by an order of magnitude if the aliens are from another galaxy. It’s laughable that we would go to another galaxy and meet aliens that are roughly our shape and size, seem to breathe similar air with a similar air pressure (the Kett sometimes don’t do this, like on Habitat 7 – it’s random enough that you can’t guess any “rules” from it), they have similar gravitational needs, and are otherwise just us with different skin. I get that this is sci/fi and that aliens are just allegories and metaphors for the human condition, but it’s still incumbent on the writer to have some imagination and incumbent on the development team to express that imagination. This game displayed an impressive lack of imagination when it came to alien design and the slapdash, on-the-fly worldbuilding that happens with the game shows a lot of its cracks around these new alien characters.

    And meeting the Angara is another of those big moments in the story where the game reminds us that we’re not actually exploring anything. Other people from the Milky Way have been everywhere and seen everything and interacted with everybody. Seriously, the only sense that we ever have that we’re in a first contact situation is back on Habitat 7 when we meet the Kett, but then we quickly learn that it’s not first contact at all and we were just too ignorant of the goings-on in Heleus to know the difference.

    Meeting the Angara for the first time should’ve been mysterious and wondrous and been this moment of actually being a Pathfinder and it’s none of those things. Sara lands and finds that the Angara have already met a bunch of us and learned our language… or programmed our language into some sort of translator? Anyway, it was very unsatisfying to land and have our first conversation basically be, “Yeah, bro – we’ve met you’re kind and aren’t particularly impressed. We should go grab a burger or something and hang so we can decide if you’re cool or not.” It was so rote that I’m surprised it didn’t include an “edgy” Budweiser “Whassup?!”

    How this game handles languages is a mess. It’s not a game-breaking problem, but it’s endemic as to why this game doesn’t work. Everything feels so shattershot and out-of-sorts. The worldbuilding feels like it was made up on the fly by people who didn’t fully think through the consequences (or didn’t have enough production time to do so), and it just spits out this game that’s almost interesting and full of potential, but then it’s just “meh.” I would describe Andromeda as a mediocre and forgettable game. It’s not bad, but it had a big name to live up to and it just couldn’t do it.

  12. Lars says:

    The Angaraans do have another “hat” (at least in German dub). Their bodies can generate electricity like eels. But it is another bad example of the show-don’t-tell-rule. It’s mentioned several times, but never is shown what the Angaraan or Kett (inherited) can do with this.
    A simple thing would be, that Angaraan (and Kett (foreshadowing)) could work machines that even SAM-Magic could not.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      You could have a tiny scene, with the humans plugging in some space-cell-phone / space-laptop / space-flashlight to recharge in a generator, and the Angaraans laugh at them. “What – you mean you can’t just recharge X by having it touch your skin? How limiting!”

    2. Karma The Alligator says:

      Couldn’t they have done that as the Andromedan equivalent to Biotics?

    3. Trevor says:

      The “bodies generate electricity” thing is how they explain Kett and Angaran characters having biotic-like powers without having actual biotics.

      The developers wanted the bad guys to have comparable combat abilities and tricks as the player has, so that combat is roughly symmetrical. In a shooter you don’t want a massive mismatch between one side having all the space magic and the other not (although this would be a great source of story), but you also don’t want to say, “The Kett also discovered element zero and mass effect fields and they have the exact same tech level as the Milky Way 600 years ago.” So you get some mumbo jumbo about electricity generation.

      This explains why one of Jaal’s abilities is to teleport behind an enemy and make a melee attack against them. Even though Jaal is a sniper. smh.

    4. BlueHorus says:

      That sounds like an amazing opportunity to make Jaal stand out. He has a unique combat talent that works in a very different way to the other team members. It could have been great.

      Ah, a missed opportunity in ME Andromeda. Who’d have thought?

  13. Liessa says:

    I gave up on the idea of either playing or watching the game around the time the Archon showed up, so most of this stuff is more-or-less new to me. The Angara planet does look a lot more interesting than anything we’ve seen so far, so yeah, props to the artists for that. The Angara themselves, on the other hand… :P

    Obviously I’m the sort of writer who would go crazy and invent ten new alien species and give them all personalities and histories and make them all wildly different in terms of physiology and then the modeling and animation team would laugh at me and say “no” because apparently the management doesn’t want to waste money on frivolous things like space aliens in our game about meeting space aliens.

    Genuine question, Shamus: You’re a writer, programmer and game designer. Have you ever considered trying to get a team together and make your own Mass Effect-style space exploration RPG? Obviously I realise this would be a much bigger undertaking than Good Robot, and that you couldn’t afford AAA visuals, animations etc. OTOH, I’ve seen some really impressive games created by tiny dev teams on a shoestring budget, and I bet that at least some people here would be willing to throw money at you and/or help out.

  14. Vermander says:

    I have to disagree about the design of the Angoran city. I remember being really underwhelmed by it. I thought that it looked like a fancy outdoor mall (complete with food court and kiosks) combined with a museum of modern art. It didn’t seem particularly “alien” to me. It also didn’t feel like a crowded capital city or one of the last strongholds of an embattled people. Maybe it’s because those tented dome roofs remind me of the sun shades that we tend to build over outdoor shopping centers, playgrounds and concert pavilions here in Texas.

    Most of the Angaraans there seemed to be eating, shopping, or standing around talking with their friends, and most of them didn’t even seem to notice the three space aliens with guns wandering around.

  15. Matt says:

    Mass Effect’s core aliens – the asari, geth krogan, quarians, salarians, & turians – were all retreads of pretty well-worn archetypes from sci-fi and fantasy fiction. I enjoy them and BioWare did put some unique spins on their traits, but I think introducing an original unique species was probably beyond their scope (and possibly their abilities as writers). That said, I’m not sure why they tried with Andromeda, while also ditching some of those established races. It seems like they would have had enough challenges already, why not keep the easy, working stuff?

  16. ccesarano says:

    It’s funny to read about the interruptions in inter-party dialogue, and to reflect on God of War last year. In God of War Mimir would tell old stories and lore during transportation, but once you made landfall and were bound to run into combat he would find a breaking point and say “We’ll continue this another time”. Next time you hopped on your boat, he’d resume the story from where he left off. I don’t recall Dragon Age: Origins ever needing something like that since it also had party banter, but perhaps it would be something for them to look into. Combat over, “Right, so, Cora, you were saying?”

    As for the aliens, this feels like a Star Wars fan trying to write in Star Trek style. I don’t mean that as an insult, just that Star Wars doesn’t care about the science of it all (even if the novelizations tried to shoe-horn science into all that fantasy). The writer or writers in charge don’t seem to have enough experience with more thought-provoking science fiction. One of the first things to pop into my head was Larry Niven’s Ringworld, and how that book has an alien race characterized by their intelligence and cowardice, only to find that they aren’t necessarily cowards, just that their instinct for physical combat is to turn and kick with their powerful hind-legs. It’s a bit silly, but was a moment of seeing an alien species evolved far beyond physical combat that even they lost touch of the source of their most primal instincts.

    That’s not even the smartest of sci-fi novels I’ve ever read, but it’s a very different approach from Star Wars, where aliens are largely a combination of “wouldn’t it look cool if” and “okay, here’s a bunch of junk we got lying around, how do we make people look alien with this?”

  17. PPX14 says:

    At another point, our squadmate Jaal corrects Ryder on her usage of who / whom. … Worse, Addison did the same thing at the start of the game. Why is Mass Effect doing the grammar nazi thing? Why would these two very different characters engage in this same annoying behavior?

    I don’t know, but I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

    1. BlueHorus says:

      They’re both Cerberus agents. The organisation’s so good that they can get covert operatives into hitherto-uncontacted galaxies!!!!!

      1. Lino says:

        Yeah, and in the sequel, we can have a massive fleet of Cerberus ships that comes in and attacks everybody! And it’s lead by The Illusive Man, who’s been resurrected by Cerberus!

        Wow, we’re really good at this! We should apply for BioWare’s writing team!

        1. Coming Second says:

          Nooooo. C’mon you guys, really think like Bioware. Cerberus were in Andromeda 10 years before the Initiative! In that time, they’ve constructed facilities and fleets right across the Heleus Cluster, becoming one of the major factions contesting the region. They are experimenting with splicing human DNA with Kett, so far they’ve succeeded in killing 6 million people. They are led by 50 clones of Kai Leng, each one more awesome than the last.

          You discover everybody knew all about this ten minutes into the sequel, it’s just that the dialogue option to ask about it didn’t exist.

          1. tremor3258 says:

            Also there’s totally a Citadel here you need to free. Don’t question, just do this action setpiece.

            1. BlueHorus says:

              Well, clearly Cerberus secretly holo-mapped the original Citadel, then built an exact replica of it in hiding in the Milky Way. After that, they shipped it to Andromeda (again, in secret) and lost it, whereupon some randoms who’d left the Initiative to play pirate found it and set up shop.

              That’s when the pirates found the bioweapons stash hidden on the station, so now they’re threatening to release a deadly plague* on the Nexus – and Ryder is the only one who can save the day!

              *Deadly only to humans, naturally. All other species are immune.

              1. Karma The Alligator says:

                Exact replica but twice as big, too. Because apparently they don’t understand scale.

                1. Lino says:

                  Sounds great! But I think we should start with only 20 clones of Kai Leng. I mean, with 50 of him the game will just be too awesome. How are we supposed to top that in part 3?

                  1. Karma The Alligator says:

                    Make every Cerberus operative Kai Leng, obviously.

      2. ShivanHunter says:

        It’s OK though… the Andromeda Initiative is just a rogue cell.

        1. PPX14 says:

          The Andromeda Galaxy is just a rogue cell

  18. shoeboxjeddy says:

    What’s annoying about this whole thing is that the team already did this show, not tell thing correctly with the Protheans in 3. Javik doesn’t say “our civilization was arrogant, loved war, and thought we had the right to control everyone,” he THOROUGHLY demonstrates those cultural attitudes in every conversation. He calls everyone on the team “primitives”. He always is quick with a brutal but efficient solution to your problems. He points out how little his race thought of the baby races like the Asari and is quick to point out how he’s not too impressed with where everyone has ended up after all this time. Special credit to the section where you can take him through the sacred sites on the Asari homeworld and he completely shits on all of their religious iconography and traditions, completely crushing Liara’s spirit in the process.

    1. Karma The Alligator says:

      Special credit to the section where you can take him through the sacred sites on the Asari homeworld and he completely shits on all of their religious iconography and traditions, completely crushing Liara’s spirit in the process.

      I think my favourite part of this is that Bioware didn’t even bother to record new dialog for Liara, so she acts like Javik isn’t there at times
      “That beacon must have reacted to the Cipher inside you, Shepard!”
      “Or, to the actual Prothean next to him.”

    2. Coming Second says:

      Although I agree generally with what you say about Javik, I really didn’t like that bit on the Asari homeworld, because it furthered ME2/ME3’s non-too-subtle agenda of portraying every alien race as pathetic and childish and humanity as Super Special Ubermensch.

      1. shoeboxjeddy says:

        Humans had an equally excited and respectful attitude towards Protheans though. The only reason there was no human temple to them is that the Asari were directly uplifted by the Protheans and the humans didn’t know they existed until Mars, which was recent in human history in this series.

        1. Coming Second says:

          But that’s the thing – The Asari were spoonfed. The advantage they have over all the other races was handed to them, it didn’t emerge from their own resourcefulness or type of society. Humanity discovered the Mars ruins and developed everything off their own bat. Because they’re AWESOME.

          1. Lino says:

            I really hate sci-fi settings where humans are always on a pedestal of awesomeness. The worst case I’ve seen is in Galactic Civilizations (a 4X game) where humans discovered FTL travel, and then gave that technology to all the other races. It just feels so wrong and unimaginative.

            1. Coming Second says:

              Yep, that’s my exact beef with it. Hated it in XCom 2 as well.

              1. shoeboxjeddy says:

                In XCOM 2, humanity was defeated and overcome by a superior alien foe that they then have to overcome through tactics, grit, and outright stealing alien tech to become strong enough to face their elites. What’s so bad about any of that?

                1. Coming Second says:

                  Once you get a fair distance in it’s revealed that humans are the specialest species in the galaxy, and that’s why the Elders have set up shop on Earth and are harvesting their DNA. The Avatar project is an effort to create the ultimate being that the Elders can then co-opt, because their own forms have become too weak. Because they’re aliens. Also the Commander themselves has, like, the most powerful brain in the galaxy I guess, because they use it to marshall Advent’s forces for 20 years. It’s like a Russian doll of ‘You’re awesome!’ tropes.

                  1. Karma The Alligator says:

                    Really wish you’d put some spoiler tags on that.

          2. shoeboxjeddy says:

            Human civilization changed from similar to what we have now to intergalactic empire after Mars. It would be completely incorrect to say that humans did it all on our own in Mass Effect, as discovering the Mars Ruins ALSO uplifted OUR species. It’s pretty similar to Destiny lore, when the Traveler is discovered.

  19. tremor3258 says:

    Musha shaka paka?

    Sorry, flashback to the good old licensed game days – for when you want to cut down the number of voice acting but still want dialog.

    On the translator issue – as noted above, Star Trek style, and pretty good. Though I think there’s a couple conversations in the first game where Shep has to stop and ask them to repeat because what was said was weird enough she/he thinks their translator glitched.

  20. Dreadjaws says:

    Cora asks Jaal if he has any brothers and sisters. He replies that he has eight, and Cora asks how he managed with such a large family. And here I (stupidly) expect the writer to create a little misunderstanding and we’ll discoverer that eight is a really tiny family and females typically have litters of a dozen or more. But no, apparently the Angaran have the exact same attitudes about family size as modern-day human beings do.

    OK, I’m genuinely confused here. I could swear that your expectation was precisely how the game handled that bit of trivia. I even remember Jaal telling to Ryder at some point that his family was small, and that he was actually surprised at hearing that human families aren’t usually that large. All of this was from bits of conversation obtained while exploring the place in the mission in which Jaal has to rescue his brothers from the Angaran fanatics.

  21. Retsam says:

    The most ridiculous (and thus, my favorite) handling of the language barrier is The Forbidden Kingdom (Jackie Chan/Jet Li martial arts film) – American teenager ends up in a fantasy-version of China, and can’t understand anyone due to the language barrier. Drunk Jackie Chan tells him to do something and he replies “I can’t understand you”, then Jackie Chan replies “That’s because you’re not listening!”, and the rest of the movie is in English.

    It was a moment of (I assume) unintentional hilarity for me; I’m not sure why they didn’t just have the entire film in English and not bring it up in the first place.

  22. Retsam says:

    Jaal feels like a drama major in a rubber mask has joined your crew.

    So, just to be clear, we’re saying that this game doesn’t feel like Star Trek? /s

  23. Dreadjaws says:

    Soft sci-fi: We have magical universal translators so we HEAR everyone in English, even though they’re speaking different languages. (Most of Trek.)

    The Green Lantern animated series did this wonderfully. The Green Lantern corps are a group of thousands of trained alien peacekeepers who cover the majority of the known universe and routinely gather in a central point, so it stands to reason that they study all existent races. The rings can translate every existent language efficiently, so no matter what language you speak, if you have a ring anyone can understand you and you can understand anyone.

    In an episode, the three protagonists’s rings run out of energy on an alien world, so suddenly they can’t understand each other and have to be forced to try to communicate as well as they can while trying to avoid the dangers pursuing them. They take a classic “no language problem” setting but they cleverly use it to establish it as a very possible and problematic issue.

  24. decius says:

    If you wanted to make more of the franchise, you’d take the opportunity of the premise to be about establishing a foothold in Andromeda, and if your budget was limited to one new alien then they would have to suggest that there are many more out there.

    Establish that there are other aliens “out there” in the galaxy, just not “over here”, perhaps because of whatever caused the main plot. Accomplish the game objectives, roll credits, then post-credits have a teaser/stinger that is a bunch of concept-art aliens coming saying “We’d like to talk to you about the Andromeda Coalition”. BAM! Your game is self-contained and doesn’t need to leave threads out for a sequel (although it CAN), and the internet generates it’s own hype. Start a few threads on Reddit speculating about the alien cultures, wait for someone to do a writeup that you like, and *hire* them.

  25. Paul Spooner says:

    What I’d like a lot more of is for the translation having any trouble at all finding a suitable mapping to the audience language. Like, languages aren’t just direct cyphers! There are different for a reason. This happens a lot in real life (see the subs/dubs debate for example), and is essentially the primary feature of a language barrier. I know there was at least one Star Trek episode where the universal translators couldn’t work because the aliens spoke entirely in metaphor or something, but it turns out that’s actually true about differences between human languages as well! There really should be mis-understandings within a shared language, which I feel a lot of amateur fiction writers overlook.

    I wish I could remember the place in FFTS where I did this, but I wrote one conversation where Rin and Buck start off talking about different things, and by the end of the conversation they have both reversed the perceived topic, but I can’t. So instead, here’s a short chapter from “Outside” the context for which you can read here:
    http://peripheralarbor.com/FFTS/ffts_ps_V02.1.outside.html
    But you can see below how each of the characters has a somewhat different model of the conversation that they are using to interpret what is being said. I feel like this should be even more pronounced when communicating across language barriers, and even more across species, and even more across entirely isolated evolutionary histories.

    Operation
    “Why not send them all at once?” Buck insisted.

    They had gathered in the commons again. Time to discuss the particulars.

    “We could,” conceded Stan, “but then if something goes wrong we won’t have any probes left.”

    “If something ‘goes wrong’ we’re going to have bigger problems than our probe supply.” retorted Buck. “Isn’t that why we did all that testing in the first place?”

    Rin leaned in, “Speaking of testing, we’re going to need more cable to suspend the probes.”

    “Great, something to do.” Buck got up abruptly and stalked from the room.

    “So, one at a time then.” Rin said.

    “Clearly.” Returned Stan.

    “But, when?”

    “As soon as we can of course.”

    “No, but, I mean, shouldn’t we have some sort of schedule?”

    “I don’t see how that will make a difference.”

    “Well, not to us, but on the other end. If there’s someone listening they’ll be looking for a pattern.”

    “Oh, like if they somehow fail to notice the ISAC standard orbital beacons popping in?”

    “Well, you said yourself that they aren’t designed to take that kind of stress.” Rin shrugged in resignation, “What if they explode or something?”

    “So, how are you planning on encoding information in the transmission interval? I’m pressing the accelerator beyond the limits of its design capability already. You can’t expect me to modulate the HKM on top of trying to leverage it for maximum range. It’s lunacy!”

    “No, I didn’t mean anything like that. But, how about sending one every twenty four hours. The interval will give us plenty of time to set up the next transmission. Plus even if all they see is the manifold collapsing the transmission interval will indicate a terrestrial based origin.” Rin smiled to herself. She felt immensely clever.

    But all Stan said was “Huh. Fine, have it your way.”

    “So, we need to get everything ready for five consecutive transmissions.”

    “Yeah.”

    Rin bit her lip for a couple seconds before asking, “Do we need to make a new vacuum chamber for each one?”

    “Yeah.”

    1. Lino says:

      This is actually a very good point. For some writers, it probably has to do with the fact that they’ve never learned a second language – as far as I’ve heard, learning a second language isn’t compulsory for most US students. But if you’ve ever learned a foreign language – even one that’s similar to English – you see just how differently you have to think in order to get even basic ideas across, because most of the constructs and idioms you’re used to just don’t work in the foreign language. Not only that, often if you try to translate idioms and constructs from your mother language literally, no one will understand you. In some cases, you might even sound offensive*!
      But learning a language really helps you understand a culture, because it gets it gives you a frame of reference for their society as a whole. This is because, in order to be fluent in a foreign language, you need to think in that language (even though it’s very difficult in the start). If you do that, Just reading an article in that language gives you a different perspective on it.
      Of course, you don’t need to know a different language in order to represent these differences (after all, even people speaking the same language routinely misunderstand each other). As a writer, you just have to sit down and think really hard about the implications of a language barrier. But that requires for the author to be serious about world-building. And, unfortunately, most writers aren’t.

      * An example I can think of off the top of my head is the use of the word “monkey” in Spanish and Bulgarian. In Spain, some people use it as slang for “cute”, or “cool”, but in Bulgarian, if someone “looks like a monkey”, then we mean that he/she is extremely ugly. We also use it in phrases like “You’re making a monkey out of me!”, where it means “You’re driving me crazy!”,

      1. RCN says:

        Your monkey examples makes me think that Bulgarian people in the past would more likely be familiar with larger, uglier primates, while the Spanish would be much more likely to be familiar with small, cute ones. In Brazil, for instance, most of the native languages “monkey” is an affectionate moniker and analogy. That’s because the only kind of monkey you’ll find in south America is the tamarin monkeys, those small, huge-eyed monkeys. There are nothing like baboons, chipamnzees or the like around.

        1. Lino says:

          That’s probably what it is. Since Bulgaria is in the Balkans, the only way for most people to actually see these animals would have been in the circus, zoos or in books. And back then, zoos and circuses probably prioritized having bigger primates.

  26. Dragmire says:

    Maybe they ran out of ideas for hairless aliens?

    Seriously though, if the one species of alien we got had hair or fur, it would go such a long way to making them feel different to the Milky Way galaxy peoples.

  27. RCN says:

    Soft sci-fi: We have magical universal translators so we HEAR everyone in English, even though they’re speaking different languages. (Most of Trek.)

    Hard sci-fi: Communication is difficult. If you want to talk to someone, you need to know their language. There are a lot of them, and not all of them are based on sound. Good luck.

    You could also add that Mass Effect 1 was somewhere in between these two (with a super-awesome translator that only really works with verbal communication but not that great with the Elcor and the Rachni) while Mass Effect 2 onwards it switches to Action/adventure mode.

    This is the same problem faced with the Stargate franchise. The movie, marking the only time ever Roland Emmerich actually got a scientific field correct, nails the language barrage aspect and it is a major point of the plot.

    Then the series start and handles the language barrier exactly once, in the first episode, and promptly drops it without ever mentioning it again for almost the entire series. I mean, the Goa’uld and the Jaffa and everyone else HAS their own languages, but somehow everyone also speaks plain english for the benefit of the protagonists without any explanation whatsoever. Though the real explanation is that spending half of every episode dealing with linguistics would get old really fast.

  28. RCN says:

    This Galaxy doesn’t have the Mass Relays, right? And even in the Milky Way, most of the galaxy wasn’t explored, only a handful of Mass Relays are open.

    I think the lack of species is fine this time around. You don’t have the tools to explore large swathes of the galaxy at a whim anymore and the Cannon of the series is that life is abundant, but intelligent life is kinda rare. There are a lot of known intelligent alien species, but that’s only because the Mass Relay network allowed a large portion of the galaxy to be explored.

    Still… this is a galaxy that isn’t suffering a purge every 50 thousand years or however long the Reaper cycle took… so maybe it should be teeming with more life. As for the technology that’s a difficult question, since the Milky Way seemed to be stuck at a plateau of reaper-manipulated uplifts where there are no real technological advancements, only technological retrogressions, like going from an infinite ammo-supply based weaponry to going to a limited-magazine based one.

    Ok, low jab. But still seemed to be the case. Everyone is way more advanced than they should because of reaper caches.

  29. Tuck says:

    The languages thing reminds me of a video game my siblings made when we were kids. It was a graphical adventure game with rooms drawn in MSPaint, the vast majority drawn by my brothers as largely featureless green plains/hills and blue sky. I was given the chance to draw a couple of rooms, but I thought it would be nice to have some stuff in the picture, so I added a tree and the sun shining in the sky. My rooms made it into the game, but they never fit with anything anyone else had done.

    Of course, the difference with Andromeda is that we were kids, not professionals.

  30. Khazidhea says:

    Re: “Cora asks Jaal if he has any brothers and sisters. He replies that he has eight, and Cora asks how he managed with such a large family. And here I (stupidly) expect the writer to create a little misunderstanding and we’ll discoverer that eight is a really tiny family and females typically have litters of a dozen or more. But no, apparently the Angaran have the exact same attitudes about family size as modern-day human beings do.”

    From memory the Angara actually do typically have large, extended families. I recall this being brought up several times on their planet, but it would all have been easily missable (I’d put it on the same level as needing to read the codex entries). I think Jaal at one point mentioned he had 5 mothers, and families often were 10-15+. From the wiki: While they have only one true mother and father, the angara share their parents with the community. Their families are very large, consisting of multiple mothers and many siblings and cousins, and play an important role in their lives.

    1. Shamus says:

      Thanks. I’ve edited the original passage for clarity.

  31. Hunter Rose says:

    Maybe… the translator inverted the meaning of strong and weak…

  32. PPX14 says:

    What happened to Daemian Lucifer? Used to see him on here all the time. And wasn’t there someone else with a similar name too?

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