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Mass Effect Andromeda is just around the corner, bringing fans back to the universe introduced in BioWare’s landmark science-fiction trilogy. In Andromeda, however, we’re visiting a distant galaxy full of dangerous new worlds, unique alien species, and an unfamiliar cast of characters.
At PAX East 2017, we had the opportunity to chat about Mass Effect Andromeda‘s impending release with Mac Walters, the game’s creative director , and Cathleen Rootsaert, one of the lead writers. The pair shed some light on how Andromeda differs from what came before, as well as some of the inspirations behind the story.
Where did the idea to leave behind the world of the original trilogy after Mass Effect 3 come from?
Mac Walters: Personally, one of the things I loved about the original series was when we got the uncharted worlds in development. They were just barren for a long time. One day, art did a pass, and going through I was like, “Oh my god, I love this!” There was nothing on those worlds, I’m just driving around in the Mako exploring them, probably for the better part of a week. Once we realized we wanted to go to Andromeda, it really felt like an emphasis on exploration allowed us to do everything we wanted to do with the characters, with the narrative, and with gameplay.
Even if you look at where we are culturally right now, everyone is back to looking at space exploration, whether its SpaceX, somebody going to Mars, or the rovers, whatever, there’s this intense almost love affair with space again. Our culture has come around back to it. For me, it really speaks to looking up at the stars as a child and imagining what that world would be like if I could land on it. That was something we always wanted to have before and we never fulfilled it in the way I thought we could have.
Why not make a proper Mass Effect 4?
MW: We could have just followed in the footsteps of Mass Effect 3, kept it in the same galaxy, even kept the same characters, maybe give it a bit of a facelift, but not really change much. That’s what Mass Effect 4 would have been to me, an evolution of what we were doing.
It was really important for the team that we try to get back to a place where they have more possibilities to work with, and hopefully that then translates back to the player. Where they can imagine more, look forward more, and not be spending so much time looking back at what we were doing with the trilogy. The characters are new, the setting is new, the consequences are new. It’s not dealing with the Reapers, they’re not coming to destroy Andromeda now. We have a different thing here, a completely fresh start.
At the start of the adventure, players can tell the game if their Shepard was male or female. Should we expect other references
to the previous games?
MW: We hide Easter eggs throughout. We released a trailer recently and someone heard Liara’s voice and said “Oh my god, it’s Liara!” It’s just trying to find those moments where we can seed in references, not just, here’s a (video) of Tali doing something. It’s like,“Why? Does it make sense for her to be doing that?” And so we wanted to make sure that the things we include as Easter eggs make sense narratively and have a purpose. So, Liara being there has a purpose.
Can you tell us a little bit about humanity’s journey to the Andromeda galaxy?
Cathleen Rootsaert: The constraints of the trilogy were that even though it was three games, it was about a particular enemy that we were confronting. We’ve come 600 years, everyone’s been asleep. It’s not like we’re leaving behind the Milky Way, its that we’re taking it to Andromeda for a fresh start. This is in the air right now, there is a passion within humans to seek new worlds. Because we’ve done that in the Milky Way already, it’s something we asked of all our characters—why do they make this journey? And they each have an individual reason. Some people are escaping something, some are seeking adventure, and some people do want a fresh start. It’s about newness and adventure, and I think that exists within all of us.
One of the aspects of Mass Effect that resonated the most with players was the cast of memorable characters, which many consider to be some best-written in gaming history. Can you tell us about some of Andromeda’s unique characters?
MW: All the new aliens you meet, especially the friendly ones, like Jaal (he’s a squad-mate) are good examples. I think if you spend time with the Ryders versus Shepard, you won’t confuse the two ever. They feel very unique, but at the same time the whole experience feels very Mass Effect. You still have the tone wheel for dialogue, so you feel like you’re in the same universe, but you’re definitely a different character.
CR: Our new A.I. is a character that’s with you from the very start, created specifically for the Pathfinder team by Alec Ryder. Every member of the Pathfinder team has access to the Simulated Adaptive Matrix (SAM). SAM lives on the Nexus but is plugged into the Tempest, and so everywhere you go, SAM is with you. And that’s new, whereas EDI was just on the Normandy. You may get help while exploring but he’s not like an omniscient, voodoo guy, he’s very much a character.
Several different species have traveled to the Andromeda galaxy with the Ryders. Will there be new team members outside your original squad that join up with you over the course of the game?
CR: There are characters to recruit. You have a Pathfinder team that starts the game, but things go badly when you arrive. Whichever Ryder that you choose to play, you and your sibling are on the Pathfinder team, your dad is the Pathfinder, you’re heading down to the planet, but something happens to your sibling. You can visit them over the course of the game, and they do take part in the ultimate climax of the game. They’re on the Nexus and you can go speak with them. After that point, you must build up a team to go with you, to take on the Kett, to make a place your home, to be the Pathfinder.
What are the challenges of presenting a clear narrative, with a beginning and ending, in a game that encourages players to explore at their own pace?
CR: Most people will have a different experience. The overarching narrative is that we need to find a new home for our people. Our overarching narrative of dealing with the Kett exists, but along the way we meet the people of Andromeda. We find out that there are more complicated stories about the Kett that we can also explore. There are some more complicated stories about Alec Ryder and his family that we can explore. But those things can be experienced out of order.
It’s always very clear what you have to do to progress in the main story arc, but at any point I could go and explore this thing over here, or put it off until later. You can actually play any of the loyalty missions after the game is done. We operate within the constraints of having presented an enormous game, so it’s not like suddenly there are daisies on all the planets now, but there is content that reacts to you having beaten the game. I would say you can go back and do 90 percent of the content that isn’t necessary to get to the ending.
One of the big complaints about Mass Effect 3 was that multiplayer
was necessary to get a better ending to the game. How do Andromeda’s online modes affect the story?
CR: Strike teams do not affect the outcome of the game in any way, but I will say that there are some story elements that will be revealed as people play.
MW: The narrative idea of Strike Teams is that this isn’t a military operation. We came here as explorers to settle. However, we aren’t foolish, we know that once we settle there might be conflict, even among ourselves. And so, different little events will pop up in real time, and in single player, you can develop a team that you send off. They get a percent chance to succeed, and as they succeed you can invest in those squads more, build them up. That’s the single player version of it. Or, if it is an Apex Mission, you can choose to go do that mission yourself, and play it in multiplayer. So you’re not playing that as Ryder, you’re actually playing as one of those kits from multiplayer as an Apex Squad.
Mass Effect Andromeda hits PC, PS4, and Xbox One on March 21.
This interview has been edited for length.
AJ Moser is a Brooklyn-based reporter who focuses on video games, movies, and internet culture. His work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Game Informer, and Big Spaceship.