Mass Effect Andromeda, the Uncanny Valley, and the Looming Threat of Memes

Mass Effect Drak

Bioware’s latest entry into the acclaimed Mass Effect franchise has become a punchline on the internet. Countless gifs, video compilations, and complaint threads were created in response to its… odd looking character models and animations. Going further, I would argue that the response to the animations and models have overshadowed the game itself, with people unable to get over how “off” they look. It’s understandable, we’re suppose to be in the next generation of gaming, but this game looks noticeably worse than any of its predecessors. How could this happen? I’d imagine many Bioware fans like myself (who has loved them since Knights of the Old Republic) feel baffled as to how they could fail so many who had faith in them. A gaming company whose work was once synonymous with great RPGs has fallen into the pit of being a cautionary tale for the perils of entering the AAA gaming market. The contrarian hipster in me wants to pin the blame for this mess entirely on just that, a big corporation like EA forcing a once pure company to churn out mediocre content for a quick buck, and eventually corrupting them in the process. The problem of course, is that issues like this tend to be far more nuanced.

According to this twitter thread from a former Bioware animator, the problems may have actually stemmed from a case of them biting off far more than they could chew. Overly ambitious advancements to the dialogue animations that they simply did not have time to apply to parts of the face beyond the mouths of the characters that are speaking. Five years actually turned out to be too little time. If EA did in fact give Bioware that sort of deadline, I’d be hard pressed to portray them as the evil creatively illiterate company they are so often depicted as. Ya, I know real creativity and art shouldn’t be hampered by a timeline, but guys, it was 5 years. This is fascinating to me because this feels like a negligible aspect to a game overall. I mean, a character’s face looking super realistic as they are speaking is something that’s cool, but absolutely shouldn’t ever be in a position to tank an entire game. If the undertaking seemed risky, then perhaps it would have been best to go with the tried and true tactic of coasting off the previous dialogue and facial animation system that worked before. Perhaps criticism would have come from those dissatisfied with a lack of innovation, but again, we are talking about an area of gameplay that will lead to moderate respect for improved technology at best, and a horrifying meme machine at worst. Facial animations should have faded into the background, but unfortunately they became the story here.

All this effort that is being made into creating ultra realistic humans creates an interesting argument. Is the act of attempting to create something revolutionary commendable in and of itself, or is anything other than perfection a wasted effort? Andromeda seems to be making the case for the latter. The flawed assumption one can make here is that they didn’t try and the result should have been obvious, but real effort was put into making this game, a vision of creating a Star Trek-like experience for this franchise was put forth, and maybe they succeeded on a gameplay front, but the problems in presentation totally overshadowed whatever success they have had in other areas and created an undesirable situation for all those involved. A labour of love that was worked on for half a decade was released and it was met with a wave of derision and cackles from today’s meme-happy internet. And this is all because of one aspect of what went into making this game. The writing, the multiplayer, the gameplay, and everything besides animations have strengths and weaknesses of their own, but the first thing fans are going to be talking about when it comes to this game for the foreseeable future is how weird people look when they talk. This isn’t a complaint, this is just another iteration of one of the oldest and wisest axioms out there: A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

I realize I am probably coming across as someone who is telling ambitious animators to just not try, but that isn’t the best approach to give when it comes to the future of the medium. Somebody has to fail to teach those that will come after what can and cannot be done, but just as a principle, when it comes to recreating human features, getting close is actually a lot worse than being far off. I’ve long suspected that with each new gaming generation, we’re getting closer and closer to the age of the uncanny valley effect being a common element of videogames. It’s not just going to be this game, we’re going to see people see all this new and powerful technology set lofty goals, face the realities of deadlines and studio expectations, and then compromising in their vision only to create horrific monstrosities mocked by the internet for getting close but not close enough. We are about to reach critical mass in creepy and unintentionally hilarious faces in video games.

Interestingly enough, there is also something to be said about how viral responses to perceived flaws have advanced in the past five years. When this game’s development began five years ago, I doubt Bioware fully grasped how the internet’s meming mob would grow exponentially from the days of “Marauder Shields” to countless “Ryder face meme” videos being put out on an hourly basis. The internet’s hivemind and predatory social instincts have been growing steadily in the years Mass Effect has been away, and that isn’t exactly great news for the gaming industry. If prospective animators had a teachable moment in the form of what went wrong with this game’s models, gaming PR firms should also note what went down when one of the most venerated gaming studios put out a new installment of their most acclaimed series only for it to be turned into a laughing stock. For people who aren’t as technologically savvy as videogame designers, that dynamic could be every bit as fascinating to explore.

Quote of the Day:

“Just because I like you doesn’t mean I won’t kill you.”

– Urdnot Wrex, Mass Effect.

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