Science in Mass Effect: Andromeda

I’m still not done with Mass Effect: Andromeda–I’m about halfway through the game. It might take me some time to get through it, but in the meantime, I wanted to talk about the impression I’ve had of the game so far from a biological/genetics standpoint.

At some point in the game’s production, someone with knowledge about scientific research must have been consulted. Andromeda leans away from a lot of the pitfalls I frequently see in media representation of science, and instead shows some understanding of what science is like. (Though that doesn’t mean I always agree on how a particular subject is tackled.)

There are a number of nice touches hidden throughout the game:

  • Cryostasis was used to keep colonists alive during the 600 year journey to Andromeda. In one overheard conversation, the revival team asks what to do with the people who don’t survive the process. They have this functional cryopreservation process, but not everyone survives it. It’s an acknowledgement of the unpredictability of biology, where nothing is ever 100%.
  • The angara are a different species that the colonists encounter for the first time. When scientists are presented with the angaran belief in reincarnation, and the ability of certain angara to recall memories from an ancestor, their reaction isn’t the stereotypical ‘but that can’t happen.’ Instead, more realistically, they speculate on how the angara might be able to genetically inherit ancestral memories. 
  • Another newly encountered species, the kett, are able to incorporate genes from other species–a controlled, deliberate horizontal gene transfer (with the game using the terminology).
  • The game also stretches the imagination in terms of thinking about AI. Far from the old school stories where AI is inevitably a danger to humanity, here, the main protagonist interfaces with an AI in a way that’s compared in-game to a symbiotic relationship.

Science and Religion

The one aspect I had mixed feelings about was how the conversation with your crew’s religious scientist goes down. On the plus side, the game makes the point that–despite stereotypes of scientists as exclusively atheist–some do participate in other religions. That’s totally worth saying. The minus side is that the conversation this revelation happens during forces a massive oversimplification. The character tells you that she believes in a higher power behind creation, and that science brings her closer to that higher power. You have literally only two very extreme ways to respond to that–either ‘I feel the same way’ or ‘There’s no higher power.’

I mean, really? 1) Even for people who are religious, there are a number of different beliefs they can have, and a number of different relationships those beliefs could have with science. 2) The references to a higher power might make anyone who’s religion isn’t strictly monotheistic feel excluded. 3) This also completely ignores agnosticism, by forcing a choice between believing and not believing in a God. 4) Even if someone is an atheist, they might not be comfortable stomping over someone else’s beliefs like this conversation choice forces you to.

The game didn’t have to force the conversation to a point where it only presented two possible belief options–especially when the entire point of the scene must have been to expand understanding instead of oversimplifying. I get that it’s hard, with only one character representing the demographic and a limited amount of options you can possibly give your player, to do the complexity of the topic justice. Then again, a sci-fi book I recently wrote about–The Terrans–also had a limited space in which to discuss science and spirituality. But the discussion in that book came off as far more nuanced than the one in Mass Effect: Andromeda. 

I don’t know, the scene felt clunky to me. I didn’t enjoy it. But maybe for people who aren’t aware scientists can be anything other than atheists, this’ll be a net good?

The Prologue, creating a science-like feel through its exploration

A reading from 600 years ago determined that the planet you first encounter should be habitable. Yet, when you get there, it’s a disaster. You’re shot out of the sky even trying to land, and frequent lighting strikes continue to zap all around you. You have no idea what’s going on or how it’s happening–and you’re like, okay, how do I find out?

It’s a mix of exploration of a location you don’t know, and exploration of a phenomenon you don’t understand. The latter is pretty much science, although your engagement with it has more to do with observation than experimentation. You wander around scanning strange plant and animal life, looking for your team, and in general trying to put together a theory for what’s going on.

Since I frequently use exploration as a metaphor to explain the process of scientific research, it isn’t surprising that an exploration- and mystery-heavy opening would feel science-like to me. This kind of excitement at coming across something you don’t understand, and looking for clues to try to put together educated guesses–it elicits the same feeling of discovery. Moreover, once the team puts together a plausible idea and plan of action that may or may not solve their problem, the protagonist gives this wonderful quote:

“We’re banking on science we don’t understand. What if the theory’s wrong?”

This is a great acknowledgment that the one working theory you’ve been able to put together from the scraps of information you’ve found so far might not be the right one. It’s the perfect thing to say in this scenario. Of course, plot reasons mean that the theory has to be the right one, but I like that the characters know it could easily be wrong.

Conclusion

Whatever other faults the game may have, someone involved somewhere in the process of developing this game had to have familiarity with scientific research. That’s my impression on the topic.

To close off, I’d like to leave you with a relevant blog post I found, written by a computer science professor: “The technology of Mass Effect Andromeda.”

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3 Responses to Science in Mass Effect: Andromeda

  1. Theo Promes says:

    This review encourages me quite a bit, maybe I will grab andromeda after all…
    What you write about the religious discussion, however, I have to say that is imo a more basic problem of the genre – the choice in dialogues is just not nearly nuanced enough to be able to discuss complicated topics, while it works fine for you run-off-the-mill quest dialogue, once you start delving in philosophicals, its never going to be good enough. This case is particularly extreme, but lately I’ve found myself regularly annoyed by reply options in dialog trees like this. Not sure if this is due to game designers becoming more willing to explore complicated topics or rising standards for proper interaction on my end – probably a bit of both.
    Still, its nice to see that the designers are willing to go there, even if the path is bumpy. The games industry is indubitably adjusting to its more and more adult clientele, and I do enjoy the fruits of this process.

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    • Well, this particular post only talks about how the game handles science, which is a small piece of the experience overall–note that I also say that I haven’t finished the game, and might not for a while. And my previous post on the game, which was the actual review, is more mixed. I’m not even sure at this point if I’d recommend Andromeda, or if the positives actually outweigh the slog in between those moments.

      As for the discussion, there are limitations for the medium, yes, but I still think they could have done better within them. The characterization and dialogue are weaknesses for the game overall, too, not just in this one scene–so that probably didn’t help.

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