Previously, we talked about how Final Fantasy XV highlighted the problem with how rhetoric in the gaming community can lead to some uncharitable claims about how games are in final release and how a more mindful approach to the critical dialogue should be approached. While playing Mass Effect: Andromeda this past weekend, it dawned on me that the staggeringly polarizing reception of the game is the result of the same problem.
The game, by no accounts, was a perfect one. Although I have yet to finish it, I’ve already encountered more than a handful of bugs that plague both the story’s cutscenes and its gameplay. At one point, I thought my character (A customized Sara Ryder since the facial animations look better on a custom character) was having an episode because her face was not rendering expressions properly. The story, which many gamers on forums had called “trash”, wasn’t too bad at all. Overall, relative to where I am in the game, Mass Effect: Andromeda simply isn’t that bad a game. However, the game did not deliver at the same caliber as its predecessor and its animation problems, coupled by its uneven story telling and frustrating bugs, makes for a topic for critical discussion. The problem here though is, the extreme backlash of the game made many perceive Andromeda of being one of the worst games to come out in 2017, although the game itself was at most a entertainingly mediocre experience.
As the very well detailed article from Kotaku explained, we know that Mass Effect Andromeda’s development did span a period of about 18 months, but there were some significant and complex hurdles the team faced ranging from creative differences/changes to a change in leadership and even problems integrating the game’s principal mechanics to the Frostbite engine. During the 5 long years of development hell, the game went on from being idealized as BioWare’s take on the procedurally generated exploration game that No Man’s Sky tried to pull off, to the sloppily released final content we were given in the end. “Sloppily” here does not refer to the game’s overall “badness” in this sense, this is more a descriptor of the fact that there were literally several unpolished elements of the game that existed post-release that should have been dealt with prior to launch. Unfortunately, the result was swift- fans immediately dropped their verdict of the game, dismissing the game in its entirety quickly. This immediate dismissal leads to an equally immediate cessation of further discussion; people say the game is bad, so it has to be bad, right? Sure, reviewer sites will try to parse the actual gameplay and narrative to eventually create something resembling a review, but what it ultimately does is fan the flames of community disapproval. This is not to say that consumers are not justified and expressing their disappointment of their favorite product, but what this does mean is that the gaming consumer has so much leverage of the success of a game that it almost creates little room for the benefit of the doubt without someone being ostracized.
The problem we are describing here is that when a community quickly dismisses a game as “bad” or quickly praises it as “good” despite factors such as, say, games being in Early Access (i.e. PUBG), a wall is erected preventing the general community from fully enjoying or experiencing the game itself without having heavy handed opinions over their shoulder as to the quality of the game they play. Game reviews are an important part of understanding whether the game is truly worth playing or not, but that is ultimately to the discretion of the individual buyer/consumer. When games become quickly judged without actual analysis, we close the possibility that there may be redeemable elements in a “bad” game that can make it “good”, or at least bearable-and games that are “good” having elements that can make the game actually be problematic. What makes Andromeda resemble something closer to “good” is its story. We know that the general story itself is all over the place and its ending (no spoilers) presumably leaves us at a massive cliffhanger that would have been sorted out through some sort of DLC/expansion. However, the Mass Effect series doesn’t simply focus on the overarching “save the galaxy” theme; it has smaller scale story telling elements that cohesively brings the entire plot together. For Andromeda, it was the smaller storytelling elements like character back stories and day-to-day life of the pilgrims of the Milky Way galaxy that added a certain charm to the game. There was a kind of endearing element of knowing that you character, Ryder, will commit to actions that well help establish a troubled initiative on proper footing and that feels great. But the legitimacy of these elements that theoretically would make something “good” or at least categorized as “decent” don’t apply once an immediate refusal and/or dismissal is dropped by the general public.
Sophia Park’s Polygon article actually touches on this problem of how such a quick dismissal of media elements leads to us losing such potentially positive experiences, arguing that with Andromeda, there is a kind of greatness hidden in it’s “mess” or “badness” in my vernacular. As Park puts it:
Mass Effect: Andromeda complicates its questions about identity and personhood with its “messiness.” It has questions it isn’t sure it’s asking. But that doesn’t lead it to being a waste of anyone’s effort, nor is it a joke. This issue showed us something more raw than we expected about the studio process by creating that story. The synthetic/organic relationship felt more personal because it was given some space to be explored honestly. It wasn’t honed or buffed away during the production.
And yes, it’s still great in spite of that rawness. Maybe it’s great because of the authenticity that rawness provides. So why was this left out of so much of the discussion around the game?
The central issue here that both I and Park make is why a game with redeeming qualities and genuinely good features is quickly ignored or marginalized simply because the game has been deemed “messy” or “bad”. There is no critical analysis at this point as the community, which Mass Effect’s community in particular has shown, will begin to bash, troll, and sh*t post the game’s “messiness” or “badness” to oblivion. This leads to little or no consideration of redeemable elements that could have made the experience a positive one for a different crows. The Destiny series also follows a similar path. Whereas the sequel has had a lot of good media over the past few weeks, the original Destiny was hammered with bad reviews from the community. Many who have never even played the game were now quick to downplay the game merely because it had been deemed both “messy” and “bad” by the community standards. Although Destiny had irredeemable flaws in its story telling at launch and horrible weapon balancing, the subsequent DLCs made the gameplay experience much more bearable and even fun. It is why there was still an optimistic community of Destiny players who found joy in the game despite the increasingly bad press the game received.
The central point I wanted to make is that games such as Mass Effect Andromeda are never truly given a proper analytical lens for consideration because the community always finds itself to be the highest voice of authority in deeming the goodness or badness of a game’s merits and quality. Again, this is not to say that games like Andromeda should win game of the year awards, but there is an inherent problem with how the gaming community is quick to judge the value of a game based off quickly dismissive remarks of a game’s features. Given that even centralized scoring systems can be manipulated to poorly represent or positively represent a game, such as Steam’s recent issues with review bombing, often times one can only take reviewers verdict on the games they play as subjective experience that only they would have experience in their own way. Ultimately, we must take other people’s perspectives with a grain of salt and investigate the goodness of a game through our own perspective. There will always be a general consensus of objectively broken or incomplete games, but “good” and “bad” games are ultimately dependent on the sole individual and not the general market, at least from a critical analysis lens. I’m not entirely done with Mass Effect Andromeda, but it was a good enough experience to temporarily break me away from my Destiny 2 grinding, which for me holds some merit. Sure, the game may be far from perfect, but it has a certain essence to it that definitely is still reminiscent of the Mass Effect series, even if it doesn’t completely replicate it.