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How Mass Effect: Andromeda and other big games create lasting relationships

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The secret ingredient is time

Mass Effect: Andromeda
Mass Effect: Andromeda.

I binge on television shows to get to the end. I read page-turners, because I need to know what happens. But in video games, I linger. When I feel the end arriving, I make a detour, dabbling in some side missions or exploring new places I’d previously ignored. And it’s usually not because of the story or the world or the thrill of exploration. It’s the people. When you spend dozens of hours not watching characters, but existing alongside them, you miss them when they’re gone.

This was the overwhelming feeling I had after wrapping up Mass Effect: Andromeda. While I didn’t enjoy a lot of my time with the game, the part that really grabbed me — and kept me going for nearly 50 hours — was the cast. In Andromeda you’re the captain of your very own starship, with a crew to match. There’s a cocky engineer, a spiritual science officer, and a violent mercenary with a good heart. We went on missions together, yes, but we also spent a lot of time doing the humdrum stuff that makes up everyday life. Those were the moments I remember most. There was a particularly lovely movie night, the time we found an alien rat had been sneaking bites from our cereal supply, and video chats with distant family members.

Yakuza 0
Yakuza 0.

Novels and television let us spend lots of time with their characters. But the storytellers decide who we meet, how well we get to know them, and in what contexts. As a result, stories tend to focus on the bigger, important parts of a narrative. But video games, particularly role-playing and open-world games, allow moments to stretch indefinitely or be approached from an abundance of branching paths. They allow players to see characters at their best, but also, if they’d like, at their most boring.

These kinds of relationships are missing from a lot of games; in most blockbusters, your main way of interacting with the world is violence. You don’t make friends in Call of Duty, or fall in love in Resident Evil. But RPGs, and many open-world games, offer things to do with characters outside of shooting a gun or swinging a sword. The Red Dead games are remembered fondly in large part for the way they let you soak in the world, swapping shooting for a game of dice or cards. When you spend hours beating up goons in Yakuza 0, stopping for some sushi and a chat with the chef is a welcome respite.

Andromeda is far from the first game to build a sense of friendship and camaraderie, but it’s among the most successful. What it and its contemporaries all share is a combination offering non-violent things to do, systems built around dialogue and decision-making that shape how virtual characters see you, and a suitably huge scale that affords the time necessary to realistically form deep bonds. These features not only mean you can spend lots of time with the characters you choose to, they also provide some semblance of control over what you do and why.

The pleasure of a game like Mass Effect is that its scale and length allows you to gradually get to know its characters, from stock sci-fi players to those that feel almost human. When I first started playing Andromeda, I found Peebee — an adventurous Asari archaeologist — a bit annoying. She talked a lot and made rash decisions I couldn’t really understand. But by the end of the game she was the person on the ship I was closest to. I stopped by her room for a chat whenever I could, and when it came to making tough in-game decisions — like whether to save Peebee’s ex-girlfriend or a priceless alien artifact she’d long sought — I knew the right choice to make.

Final Fantasy XV
Final Fantasy XV.

The same is true in many other games that span dozens of hours. This is a daunting amount of time, but it’s a necessary one when it comes to building these meaningful friendships. In Final Fantasy XV, you bond with three close friends over long drives through the countryside, and late-night meals around a campfire. In Fallout 4, you can build entire settlements in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and then learn about all of the new settlers who come to live there. The Persona series gives you lots of downtime, which you can use to do useful things like studying for school or exploring monster-filled dungeons. When you choose to spend time with a classmate instead, going out for ramen or hitting the batting cages, it adds even more meaning.

Even the idiosyncrasies of irritating characters, like Geralt’s not-especially-reliable horse Roach in The Witcher 3, can become endearing given enough time. You can learn a lot about someone by fighting alongside them, but these quieter moments help create a more complete picture. Simple things like photography and cooking become especially memorable.

Where I miss the experience of binging a TV show, I miss the sensation of being in a space of a video game. There have been plenty of characters I’ve cared about in novels, movies, and television, of course, but the relationships are different. I read or watch what someone is doing, I don’t talk to them or inhabit a space with them. I can’t linger, the way I did in Mass Effect, prolonging the adventure for just a bit more time with a close virtual friend. I don’t miss them when they’re gone. Great characters can make even an average game worth pushing through. You just have to give it time.