Mass Effect: Flavours of Immortality

And this brings us to the end of me ranting about this game. Thanks to people for sitting through all of this – I hope that this has been as entertaining to read as it was good to get off my chest.

For this final bloggy-rant type thing, I want to talk a bit about extreme longevity in fiction. It’s one of those topics that can be done a whole lot of ways, but people do like to centre their interpretations around a few concepts. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – especially when those concepts are approached with interest and nuance (you know, like I keep saying improves the use of any trope) – but it can mean that sometimes immortals start to feel samey unless you really put in an effort to make the characters stand out.

Mass Effect’s advantage here is that it is such a giant story, with so much time to get to know a variety of characters. While Mass Effect isn’t always the place to go if you want a truly nuanced exploration of character and development (it has its moments, but it is at its heart a big, glorious action story, and that does come with some tradeoffs), it does have the advantage that it’s able to present several different views on different issues.

Andromeda comes with the added advantage that the worldbuilding legwork is mostly done for it – at least with regards to the species who have come to the new galaxy with the Andromeda Initiative – by the original trilogy. Any information that we get about characters and species is at this point, additional information on top of what we already know.

I’m going to admit right now that while I love Mass Effect and the entire series to pieces, one of the things that I’ve never thought was that the aliens were particularly innovative creations. Even if we leave aside the fact that at least one person on the ME dev team (I think) was getting a heck of a lot of their inspiration from Babylon 5, the aliens have always been pretty … Planet of Hats-ish. They’re pretty monolithic cultures (it even makes a point that the aliens are a bit surprised by how many different kinds of humans there are, if I recall correctly), and even though they do put in exceptions to the rules on some aliens (Garrus, for example), every alien seems to be based around either agreeing or disagreeing with a few main traits, which inform how they interact with the rest of their entire species.

It’s very hard to make that not be the case when you’re writing entirely new species and only have a very short period of time to introduce them, and want to make them feel New and Distinct, but it’s a pitfall that Mass Effect really did (and does) fall into. Andromeda sort of worked around that by having the Angara’s “central theme” be a lot more nebulous, so it was harder to pin down who was and wasn’t a ‘stereotypical Angara’, but honestly that raised as many problems as it solved (but that’s not the rant we’re on right now).

The thing that Andromeda could do, then, was introduce characters from the races we already knew with the intention of casting a bit more light on the general attitudes of the races towards certain things. Not to say they were more nuanced or better characters. Rushed development unfortunately undermined Andromeda’s character writing, which is a great shame for a franchise that runs mostly on people identifying with its characters. However, they were obviously trying to do something new with them, and even if they didn’t succeed in many cases, I do give them points for the attempt.

Two characters they introduced were PeeBee and Drack. They both come from extremely long-lived species, but with two very different outlooks.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Mass Effect universe, the Asari are the resident blue-skinned Space Elves. They have an average lifespan of 1,000 years and are the universe’s diplomats. They are stated in the Codex to “take a long view” of things, prefer to watch and observe new races before making contact, and generally are seen as more “spiritual” and “wise” than many of the other races.

On the other hand, Krogan. While they have a very similar lifespan (average of about a thousand years), they are warlike and brutal. They come from a very hostile home planet/system, and their leaders are warlords. To stop them conquering the entire galaxy, the other species created a ‘genophage’ which slowed their population growth by reducing the number of Krogan viable births to nearly zero. This understandably created some ill-will from the Krogan towards the other races, and led to a lot of Krogan having an extremely nihilistic approach to the life, often becoming mercenaries, and not many of them focus on the “good of the species” or the “future of their race”, since they’re all probably about to die out anyway.

The original Mass Effect trilogy introduces us to a whole heap of Asari scientists and diplomats, and a few more abrasive Asari, but never really deviates from that main theme. Asari come in two flavours when it comes to their immortality: Either they take the view that they have a Responsibility because they live for a long time, and they’ll get to see the effects of decisions they make (and because they have so much more life experience than other races, to they have a responsibility to impart that experience), or they get really philosophical about things, live with a ‘one day at a time’ mentality and generally try to ignore the fact that they’re going to outlive pretty much everyone they associate with.

Krogan on the other hand, fall solidly into the second camp. They don’t see a future for their race and they have a huge beef against most other races in the galaxy, so they tend to just take the “where’s the next meal/paycheck coming from” mentality to everything. There are, of course, Krogan who are working on curing the genophage, and actually getting their people organised into some sort of unified group, especially in later series, but for the most part, they tend to be pretty unconcerned with their immortality, take it as just sort of a given, and mostly use it to poke snide fun at the lack of experience of other races, especially combat related. Honestly the characterisation of the Krogan focuses way more on their personal reactions to the genophage than their reactions to their immortality.

So you have the Asari companion, PeeBee, who is Asari But Not – she’s quite young for an Asari, only a hundred or so years old, and still going through her teenage punk/commitment issues make you cool phase.

I’m sorry, I understand a lot of people like PeeBee, but she really wasn’t my cup of tea. She did have her moments, and I promise that’s all the badmouthing I’ll do.

Then there’s Drack, who’s basically your Krogan grandfather. He’s literally the grandfather of another Krogan character. He’s well over a thousand years old, and approaching the end of his life. He’s managed to survive about a millennium of mercenary work, and now he’s come to Andromeda.

Drack is probably one of my favourite characters in Andromeda. I think this because his story is relatively simple and also because he has a character type that I’m just always going to be a fan of even if it’s not that well-written.

Drack is a very old Krogan – he’s over 1400 years old, and is stated to probably have about as much time left as the average human does at birth, if he’s lucky. Drack has a few very illustrative conversations with other party members at the beginning, particularly Liam, where he makes it very clear that despite viewing Ryder with somewhat grandfatherly affection, he doesn’t make a habit of giving advice to younger people, since they tend to get overconfident and die, or just die. In particular, he resents Liam trying to relate to him, because to him it’s the equivalent of a six-year-old telling a PhD student he understands because they both have homework.

PeeBee and Drack have some rather interesting conversations about living for a long time. Drack does see her as a young’un, like the rest of the cast, but he at least doesn’t seem to think she’s as presumptuous as Liam. Mostly their conversations revolve around approaching a long lifespan, and coming to terms with the end of it.

While they never resolve any of those conversations, and mostly just bring up the topic without ever actually addressing it in any depth, I think that this style of immortality is what sci-fi needs. So often you get either the “you are all ants to me” kind of long-lived or immortal characters, or the scientifically-fascinated “you make such interesting things in your short time here” or that kind of parental “we have so much more experience, let us be your guides” kind of long-lived species, but so often these species are defined in relation to the ‘normal’ lifespan of humans. This is one of the great letdowns in Andromeda, for me, because the conversations that PeeBee and Drack have could really have dug down into that. I suppose they might have been intending to expand in the next games – I understand that they’d need to save some character development for the next games – but I really think this would have been something interesting to do with the characters.

Give me long-lived characters dealing with life on a much larger scale. Give me young immortals feeling like they’re inferior because they don’t technically have any more experience than the ‘younger races’.

Spoilers to follow, regarding Drack’s character arc.

Drack’s squad quest involves him coming to terms with the fact that the krogan look up to him as a role model, despite him feeling like he’s a remnant of the Milky Way. He’d much prefer to hand that responsibility to other, more progressive Krogan.

That’s the kind of stuff I’d like to see more of. Long-lived races feeling out of touch with the present as they get older, feeling like for all their experience and all their wisdom, the world just isn’t their place anymore, and feeling like they’ve been overtaken by the youths? The elderly humans on Earth feel that way, I want to see what happens when you get that on the scale of millennia.

But maybe that’s just me. Either way I think there is a lot of untapped potential there. Andromeda started to file the mining permits, but unfortunately never quite got around to getting out the pickaxe.

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