This post was authored by Aron Gerencser.
Mass Effect: Andromeda, like the trilogy before it, seeks to make the dream of any major science fiction fan come true: you get a ship, a mission, a squad under your command, and – most importantly – the vastness of space to explore. Anyone who grew up with space operas wished they’d have this life at one point or another. To explore distant worlds, to save civilizations, and to participate in an epic galaxy-trotting quest of paramount importance. This is what sci-fi fans have been watching on TV for decades and reading about for even longer. It’s the most basic, and most universal formula in science fiction.
Why, then, is no one else doing it?
Mass Effect: Andromeda follows the clear formula seen in earlier installments of the franchise. The player, following a brief sequence of linear introductory missions, is let loose on the galaxy, allowed to progress in whatever order they choose. Would you immediately pursue the main quest line, or head off to explore? It was up to you. You were joined by an ever-expanding cast of unique, interesting, friendly and, on occasion, insufferable squad members who you could take with you on missions. While the plot wasn’t linear, the narrative enjoyed a major role and was a crucial element of the game.
The basic building blocks of a large world, epic quest, and memorable party members are present in many great RPGs, ranging from the fantasy, through contemporary all the way to the non-space-opera Sci-Fi. However, very rarely is this setup been dressed up as a space-based affair. These BioWare games gave us a taste of what one of the typical RPG formulas look like as a space-opera. The formula worked.
A successful space-opera formula has only ever been seen a handful of times . Perhaps only five games have truly managed it well enough: the two entries of the Knights of the Old Republic series and the Mass Effect trilogy. Fans excited for Andromeda may be on the lookout for similar games to tide them over until BioWare’s follow-up to the original trilogy arrives next year. The only problem is, beyond the other sci-fi games from the same dev, they just don’t have any alternatives – and there’s only so many times you can replay these five titles. This is a niche upon which BioWare has a monopoly, and a sizeable audience is left craving.
Science fiction is an overwhelmingly broad term, and overall is hardly under-represented in the gaming industry. Space-based sci-fi isn’t either – just look at the 4X scene. Narrowing our scope down to RPGs is when we start seeing the problem. By no means is there a shortage of sci-fi RPGs, but instead of blasting off into the space age, they explore a future which took an entirely different turn. Namely, one where the world as we know it no longer exists.
Whether the plot-driver is a zombie outbreak, an alien invasion, or nuclear war, all post-apocalyptic games paint a similar picture. Instead of conquering the distant stars, mankind was violently thrust back centuries in terms of technological advancement. Instead of trekking through the landscapes of an alien world, players find themselves drinking out of dirty toilets. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of great post-apocalyptic games out there, but that’s just it: there are plenty of them. You have the obvious titles like Fallout and Wasteland, as well as hordes of smaller indie titles and lesser-known AAA productions which all fill this archetype.
While we’re supplied with enough post-apocalyptic games to keep us entertained even should we need to spend the rest of our lives in a nuclear shelter, we’d burn through our space-operas long before we even reached the halfway mark to Mars.
Arguably, one of the most popular space-based sci-fi properties out there is Blizzard’s StarCraft. It has the epic quest down, the characters are memorable, and, in the more recent games, you are occasionally given RPG-lite choices as to how you should proceed – but it’s still a strategy game. It doesn’t allow players to craft a character for themselves. If you don’t happen to identify with Raynor or Kerrigan – and come on now, who does? – you’re screwed from a roleplaying standpoint.
A certain niche of space-based games has been seeing a renaissance lately, however, this isn’t the RPG either. Space sims, after over a decade of dormancy, have re-awoken with titles like Elite: Dangerous and Everspace, while even more ambitious projects are on the horizon, most notably Star Citizen.
Those of you who know your gaming history well might be mentally screaming “Phantasy Star” while reading this. Essentially, you’re right, too – the Phantasy Star games often featured planet-hopping, had a varied cast of characters and was an RPG. On the one hand, those Phantasy Star games which featured multiple planets still stuck to a single solar system, which is hardly a vast galaxy. That might seem nitpicky, and you’d be right.
For some people, these JRPGs happen to scratch the exact same itch as Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic – in which case, you’ve got around a dozen or so games to tide you over until Andromeda hits. However, if the sometimes massive thematic and stylistic differences between JRPGs and western productions put you off, these can’t quite fill that void. Other titles that come to mind are the more recent installments of the Xeno franchise, namely the two Xenoblade Chronicles games. While both are sci-fi, both have freely explorable open worlds and both feature a varied cast of characters, neither is a galaxy-trekking tale full of spaceships and various different planets.
In the end, the reason for slim pickings may come down to money. Large productions like these require time and investment from both publishers and development teams that need to be suited for such projects. Plus, there just aren’t many indicators that space opera is where the money’s at. Beyond Mass Effect, no similar titles have reached true mainstream success. For all their top positions in various “best games of all times” lists, both Knights of the Old Republic titles only have what amounts to a cult following. The more recent Mass Effect franchise fared better, but neither of the first two installments moved notable numbers. Even Mass Effect 3 is dwarfed by post-apoc titles like Fallout: New Vegas or the more recent Fallout 4.
With all the countless genres, sub-genres and themes out there, it very well might be that the collective creative energies of the industry are just being directed elsewhere. Just look back at 2016 – this year’s releases were fairly diverse, and we’re looking at a similarly colorful schedule for 2017 – including Mass Effect: Andromeda.
In the meantime, you can always do another playthrough of the Mass Effect trilogy, or put a new spin on the KotOR games with some mods.
This post was originally written by Aron Gerencser.