One of Mass Effect: Andromeda’s earliest sidequests is called “First Murderer,” and it is a total flop.
Not long after boarding the Nexus, which is your base of operations, a Turian standing near a plaza will get your attention. She tells you that her husband has been accused of a terrible crime he didn’t commit. Could you, as the super-cool do-gooder Pathfinder, help uncover the truth before he is exiled forever?
It’s standard fare for a BioWare game and, on its face, reminiscent of the original Mass Effect’s mixture of personal relationships with bureaucratic expediency. As the person responsible for discovering habitable planets, my time was precious, but what could be more important than making sure justice was served in the Initiative’s “first murderer” case?
A whole lot, it turns out.
Here’s how things went down: during a colonizing effort on a nearby planet, a Turian named Nilken Rensus allegedly murders his friend after he refuses to let some settlers retreat from an onslaught. Eye-witness accounts accounts back that story up, but Nilken the imprisoned Turian says they have it wrong. He would never fire on his close friend, even if mutiny was the only way to preserve the remaining lives of the colony. You set off to fact-check these details, and see if you can uncover anything new that might seal the case.
To discover if Nilken is really innocent or not, I descended onto Eos and...scanned for clues. Abandoned and desolate, there’s no one to talk to on the planet about what happened, so the only thing you can do is look at broken equipment and half-buried corpses. If only these bones could talk!
They can, in a manner of speaking, thanks to the wonders of your trusty AI named SAM. Just pull out your scanner and press X over any object to have it tell you exactly what happened it. Following the trail of the dead victims scattered remains, SAM reconstructs The Truth with ease. It reminded me of when Batman gleaned a serial number from a fractured shell casing by firing a bunch of bullets into slabs of rock in that one movie, with way less action. In Mass Effect, you literally just walk from one place to another, hold down a button to either read some new text, or hear a snippet of dialogue. It’s boring.
It turns out Nilken didn’t commit the murder, at least according to SAM’s analysis of the body, which reveals it was the Kett’s gunfire that killed him. But Nilken did try to kill him. This wrinkle gets added thanks to a handy recording of the victim’s last moments which reveals Nilken fired and missed. Elementary, my dear SAM.
Back onboard the Nexus I was prepared for my new findings to make a splash. Perhaps these complicating factors would help turn the murder case into a springboard for discussing the rules, duties, and justice more generally in the Andromeda Initiative. Surely, even if Nilken had killed in cold blood, the fact that his friend was leading the rest of the colony toward a futile end by facing-off with the Kett was a mitigating factor. These people came to Andromeda to start new and wondrous lives, not throw them away in shootouts with the locals.
Instead, I was only given the option to free Nilken in light of the new evidence or suppress it and let his sentence of exile be carried out. The space station’s paper-pusher-in-chief, Jarun Tann, suggests you try not to stir things back up but also insinuates you’ll be the one to blame if people realize you tried to shove the increasingly tedious matter under the rug. Committed to high ideals like truth, justice, and the desperate pursuit of whatever conversation options were still left, I confronted Nilken. “Oh fuck, so I’m free?!” he said, or something to that effect. I tried to shame him by playing the audio recording of his dirty deed back to him, but he didn’t seem much phased by it. He basically responded with, “But bro, my shot missed.”
After the fact, I relayed this story to a prosecutor friend of mine without telling him it took place in a video game.
“You might be able to get a re-trial,” he said. “but it would still be likely that they’d be convicted for attempted homicide.” He added that it could be anywhere from 15 years to life in prison, depending on whether it was ruled first degree or second, and also what state the case was being tried in. You don’t have to be a lawyer to know that attempted murder is a thing that people can get life for, but his point about the re-trial helped articulate what was missing beyond the uninspired scan-athon.
A re-trial would have been the perfect opportunity to delve into the larger themes surrounding the incident. Are people on a colonizing mission free citizens or de facto appendages of the military apparatus leading them? Is the Andromeda Initiative willing to criminalize its own people when they try to act democratically? Conflicts like these are what made Battlestar Galactica such a striking departure from the idealism of Star Trek or the narrow morality of Star Wars. Sometimes, even older Mass Effect games could nail that complex morality.
While I played this mission, I thought back the understated elegance of the “Sunry Murder Trial” quest from BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. In it, a decorated war hero working as an agent for the Republic on the water planet of Manaan is accused of murdering a woman he was having an affair with. Instead of scanning a few glowing objects and taking cues from an AI inside the protagonist’s head, as you do in Mass Effect, you investigate the murder and proceed to act as the war hero’s defense attorney for the trial instead. The goal is to get him off, even once you find out that he’s guilty, because that’s your role as his legal representation.
Over the course of the trial you see how facts are twisted or abandoned, and how reason can lead you toward the truth as well as away from, all while Jeremy Soule’s serene, melancholy soundtrack plays in the background. There aren’t any winners by the end of it. The woman is still dead, even though she was a Sith spy, and the authority of the outcome means that the deeper, more complex truth, known only to the player, is lies buried to everyone else.
Unlike the war hero and his wife, who escape Manaan after the trial and take off for another planet, in Andromeda I’m stuck with Nilken (for a while at least). I’ll see him wandering around the Nexus, brooding about the unsatisfying turn his life took all because of an under-cooked side quest. And every time I see him, I’ll regret that I ever wasted my time on him.