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I wish Mass Effect was like The Expanse

You don't need angry monsters to create sci-fi drama

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Note: I had this post brewing in my head over the past week, while I was off on holiday, but the good folks at Waypoint ran something apparently similar before I could write it. No matter, as I’m yet to read that piece beyond the headline, I’ll write something anyway, albeit briefer, in the hope it doesn’t entirely replicate it.

Admittedly I’m ‘only’ twelve hours into Mass Effect Andromeda so far, and the main reason for not yet having made it further is that I haven’t been much intrigued by its science-fiction.

It heralds itself with the grand concept of humanity and its allies arriving in a different galaxy for the first time, but almost immediately defaults to ‘baddie aliens start shooting you’ with an unwelcome side order of heavily implied mysticism. I don’t necessarily need my scifi to be hard – I like a romp as well as a thunk – but I’ve seen stories like this too many times over 38 years to feel satisfied by straight-up monstermen and magical handwaving.

In parallel to my 10 hours with MEA, I was deep into the second book in The Expanse series, as well as the second season of its TV adaptation. During my holiday, I proceeded to burn through three and a half more Expanse novels. This is testament to a certain superficiality as much as it is to how adeptly the series got its hooks into me. They follow the A Song Of Ice And Fire Skinner box ‘and then this happened and then this and then this’ model rather than often giving me pause for thought, but there’s plenty of theoretical science and world-building in there too, thus very much saving it from being Dan Brown.

The TV show, by contrast, is increasingly more adept at characterisation, more able to hit emotional buttons and leave me caring about someone on a level beyond simply whether they live or die. Not universally so – the first chunk of the first season is fairly hackneyed, and a couple of key performances still feel a bit off even deep into the second season.

But the second season enjoyed a huge leap in quality over the first, its creators and stars clearly having grown more confident that they could make something more than a soap opera, and it’s also begun building its own path through the fundamentals of the storyline. Partly so it can function more naturally as a TV show (characters and worlds appear and disappear for whole books at a time, which doesn’t fit sets and contracts too well) but partly, I suspect, so it can have an identity beyond the novels.

In both cases, the big draw for me is that The Expanse a future where humanity has made it to the planets, but not to the stars. The species’ expanse hinges on the precarious occupation of various moons, space stations and an as-yet unterraformed Mars, and it’s interested in what this has done to humans on both a societal and a biological level. Granted, it largely turns this into excuses for conflict, which is the heart of all its plots, but still, it spends some time with the question instead of defaulting straight to gunfights.

Without getting into spoilers, something alien comes into play too, but it is both careful not to show too much too soon and to retain an alien-ness. There are no bipeds with noses and grunting voices. There are not even guns. Or faces. There most certainly is no ‘and the baddie aliens want the mysterious artifact for themselves!’ Yeah, it’s pulp and it’s often superficial in terms of plotting, but it’s both building a universe in which humans are not somehow all happy tree friends in the future and disputing the stereotype that other lifeforms should be even vaguely humanlike.

By contrast, Mass Effect: Andromeda, in my experience so far, is essentially a superhero movie. It seems so deeply uninterested in what a new galaxy might be like, and instead determined to press the concept into action convention. Sure, videogames are gonna videogame, but I like to think a decent RPG makes and keeps me curious about its world, not simply has me hungry to collect stuff, max out my numbers and bump uglies with the Blue Man Group.

What I’m saying is: I wish Mass Effect Andromeda spent some meaningful time on the practical and socio-political issues of establishing a new society before it jumped straight to angry rockmen. They’re in a new galaxy, with finite resources, no hope of calling home for help, almost nothing of their new environment understood and a pressure cooker of multi-species relations to deal with. There’s so much drama inherent in that setup already, with no laserguns or spooky monuments required.

Clearly, I don’t expect a mass-market sci-fi game to be Kim Stanley Robinson, but I do have a suspicion that executive pressure and focus grouping may have forced MEA into action, collectormania and shagging sooner than might otherwise have been desired.

In other news, I reckon The Expanse could make a decent Stellaris or Galciv mod. Get on that please, somebody.

This feature was originally published as part of the RPS Supporter Program. Cheers, Supporters!

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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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