Week in Geek: Mass Effect: Andromeda

Week in Geek: Mass Effect: Andromeda

D. Bethel dives into his history with the Mass Effect series and why he found a lot to enjoy in Mass Effect: Andromeda.

Imposter Syndrome is a natural psychological consequence caused by breaking free from personal norms. Trying something new can be scary. For those already beset with anxiety issues, the Imposter Syndrome converts us to flagellants, knowing simultaneously that these thoughts are bogus while also knowing they motivate us to push through the arbitrary and unconscious barriers we set for ourselves.

In graduate school, I had a bad case of Imposter Syndrome––one of many manifestations of my anxiety. The anxiety caused me to eat and drink a lot; it tickled my health in various ways; I lost a lot of sleep. I often woke up at one or two or three in the morning, spinning my impending failure through all possible scenarios or, if it was a good day, trying to harvest and codify all the ideas bouncing off each other like balls in a bingo spinner.

Eventually, I trained myself to just get out of bed. Go do something. Distract yourself. In the case of distraction, I learned that video games did that best.

Most of these nights happened after Nicole and I moved into our second Sacramento townhouse, away from the social thrum of midtown, which left us with mostly quiet nights; so, what sleep I could get would be uninterrupted and pleasant. On the anxiety nights, however, I crept downstairs, headphones already on and listening to podcasts––some video game commentary, some comedy interviews, some political debate, some history––and I’d fire up my Xbox 360 for hours of distraction, getting a good chunk of game in before the world even woke up. When I look back at these nights, the games that I see most in my memories are the Mass Effect series, specifically the two sequels.

Scanning planets captured perfectly the strange, silent calm of what we understand of outer space. Unlike humans…there’s nothing fragile about the cosmos. It simply is, existing slowly toward some end that is neither frightening nor threatening.

Since I was playing with the sound off (so as to consume quality audio entertainment), I rarely worked through story missions during these insomnious sessions. Instead, I searched for the mundane in the games’ side missions: fetch quests, collection runs, delivery missions. The most calming task I could do, and what I did most often, was planet scanning.

I can feel myself calming down already. (Mass Effect: Andromeda screenshot courtesy of USgamer.)

For those that haven’t played the series, scanning planets to gather resources was a system introduced in Mass Effect 2 that slows the player down in their progression through the game. Though under the guise of elements and minerals, the gathered materials can be boiled down to different types of currency to upgrade your ship or craft items. Scanning takes place off-planet, from the comfort of the bridge on your spaceship (the Normandy in Mass Effects 1-3, the Tempest in Mass Effect: Andromeda), because that’s what captains do. Forcing the player to explore the very intricate and thoughtful galaxy BioWare had constructed keeps the impatient player from barrelling through the narrative and, perhaps, gets a player that would normally not be so invested in the world, characters, and story of a game invested in this one, at least. The system changed with subsequent games, and was pretty much universally loathed, but it survived all the way into Mass Effect: Andromeda as well. And thank goodness it did.

An argument that planet scanning was the series’ true mechanic is not the aim here––I know busy work when I see it (I am a teacher, after all). But they did define the series for me in a way that focused my experience, helping to expose what became my Mass Effect.

If anything, scanning puts the series’ narrative into a cosmic scope for me, elevating the role of space in the games. As it’s told, we experience the story on a galactic scale (*pushes my glasses up my nose*) and is less “cosmic” than “epic” or, if I’m trying to be as accurate as possible, space opera. It’s a story about a powerful person; where it’s set doesn’t really matter. However, when I think of “cosmic” storytelling, I think of  Lovecraftian philosophy, called Cosmicism; I think of man’s realization of his insignificance which would either incite existential madness or balance and calm (I’m definitely the latter). I think of man’s relative impotence in the universe. There are many aspects in the Mass Effect trilogy that capture the cosmic idea very well––the Reapers (at least initially) captured that idea as did Mass Effect 3‘s DLC “Leviathan” which pushed the series ever closer to Lovecraft––but on the whole it was a series about the Chosen One and how a tiny human was going to save the universe. While exciting in a power fantasy kind of way, it’s silly if you step back and observe from a cosmic-scale vantage.

Scanning planets, on the other hand, captured perfectly the strange, silent calm of what we understand of outer space. Unlike humans and our societies, our values, or our ecosystems, there’s nothing fragile about the cosmos. It simply is, existing slowly toward some end that is neither frightening nor threatening. Again, it simply is.

I discovered this existential neutrality while scanning. As much control as the games seemed to be handing me––spinning planets around, doing so cautiously to feel the slight variation in my controller’s haptic feedback, sending out a probe at the peak of the planet’s resistance to my scanner––all I was really doing was observing. I was the hapless and tragic Lovecraftian protagonist who was trying to understand and control that which cannot be understood nor controlled by a mere person. Though it looked like I was turning planets back and forth to find the richest peak on my scanner, I was the one moving, trying to take in the entire planet and make it mine. But these planets could swallow me and I wouldn’t even leave a mark on its surface. 

Dan’s mind at 2am. (gif by CactuarKitty.)

I found a calm in reading about the planets, their makeup and environment. How their names would be creative and important around inhabited systems but would revert to impersonal streams of numbers and letters in the outer reaches. But the planets don’t care what they’re called. They still wait and spin at their own speeds, harboring important resources whether they are named after a great Turian warlord or not. Interspecies politics and the ravages of interstellar war don’t matter to the universe. Every dish is small when placed on a table that stretches to infinity.

I realize this is not what Mass Effect is about. But it is what Mass Effect is to me. Focusing on this aspect of the games in my early morning cooldowns from panic-induced awakenings did reframe the narrative. The struggle of the species did seem silly and futile. The politics were childish and petty. The choices in these games that players venerate and hold up as the peak of personalized gaming experiences revealed to me what they truly are: binary. Yes or No. Good or Bad. Right and Less Right. Red and Blue.

Planet scanning also emphasized the flaws in the overarching narrative. If the series shines anywhere it is in their smaller, mission-based interplanetary dealings, the Shepard-shepherded stories that had lasting consequences among the species of the Milky Way. It was in the narrative thrust of the games––again, specifically the two sequels––that things fell apart for me. Both Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 had static created by the “we must hurry, doom is fast approaching” narrative and the “take your time to be best buds with your crew, fall in love, and do side missions” systems. Because of this, the games seem a bit ridiculous narratively and, instead of being frustrated by it, I chuckled and played them how I wanted, being quite unmoved by the narrative itself though I did find it completely engaging. The developers wanted a sense of urgency to motivate the player, but they didn’t want you to move too quickly. It seemed that BioWare created a story for a game they didn’t want you to play, or they created a game for a story they didn’t want to tell. It was why I argued for years that the original Mass Effect was the best of the trilogy, because of its ludo-narrative synchronicity.

“What if,” I thought many times while playing the latter two games of the trilogy, “there was a Mass Effect game that was about exploration? What if the story they told needed me to take my time and and open up the map? That would be the Mass Effect for me.”

Enter Mass Effect: Andromeda.

Me and the front of my scanner, er, scout ship, the Tempest, at Kadara in Mass Effect: Andromeda.

There’s not much to say about the game itself because I got exactly what I wanted out of it. I didn’t go in expecting the space opera to end all space operas, like some, because that’s never what the original trilogy was to me. I also happened to role-play a Ryder (the protagonist of the new game) that fit rather well into the awkward writing and stilted acting––she was a science bookworm nerd who found herself suddenly in a leadership role, so she was overtly logical when the situation demanded it and, when confronted with dealing with people, she over-postured and was well-meaning but a bit of a social clutz. I felt a kinship with her. Even though the game didn’t have a  “press X to sleep” option, if there had been then Ryder would wake up way too soon, shaken by her sudden responsibilities and her psychological response to the weight of the new role as Pathfinder for the human race, saddled with the purpose of finding a new home planet for those that willingly left the Milky Way for Andromeda. Indeed, some of the missions had her exhibiting signs of Imposter Syndrome. For me, it all worked. Perhaps it was timing, perhaps it was expectations, perhaps it was my own stupidity, but this game clicked with me despite being fully cognizant of its flaws. It’s something I had to do every day in grad school. It’s something I continue to find myself doing every now and then as I head to a classroom or put pencil to paper.

What worked for me the most was that the game wasn’t in a hurry. The premise wanted me to explore, to scan, and to probe the galaxy. There was a threat, but it was a small threat, and the larger, looming threat––the Scourge––was like all things in the cosmos: devastating but slow-moving; a problem to be solved with time, research, logic, and practice, not with knee-jerk trigger-pulls and rally cries. It’s a threat to be managed, not mastered.

Though I’m not fraught with manifestations of Imposter Syndrome anymore, anxiety still hinders my sleep, though less often now. But I was happy to have a Mass Effect game to come downstairs to with my headphones on, podcasts in my ears, and the Andromeda galaxy––with all of its planets––waiting in silence and patience.

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