As BioWare rolls out a patch today to improve parts of Mass Effect: Andromeda, including some of the awkward facial animations, some fans have already taken it upon themselves. It's early days for Andromeda modding—no one's made any tools—so people are largely sharing faces made using the in-game options. The most popular is by modder fsm135, which promises to "improve" Sara Ryder's face.
"I couldn't stand looking at that silly grin and those surprised eyes all the time!!!" wrote fsm135 in the mod description. "It's not perfect, but this character creator is pretty lacking to say the least, so this is the best I got right now."
When you've scrolled through as many mods as I have, you find "improved" usually means sexualizing a character, either by adhering to traditional norms of beauty—or removing their clothes. With "Improved Sara Ryder Face Preset," fsm135 used BioWare's own facial reference for Sara Ryder, model Jayde Rossi.
As seen above, the results are certainly interesting, even if it's not exactly a replica of Rossi. (fsm135 blamed that on the limited options provided by BioWare.)
BioWare hasn't talked about its creative process with developing the aesthetics of Sara Ryder, though the most recent patch appears to have made some notable improvements. (Though it has said it's going to add more creation options.) To learn about how fsm135, a 24-year-old male software developer who just graduated college, went about developing his mod, I sent him a few questions. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Waypoint: I'm the kind of person who usually sticks with a default because I'm too lazy to design something. Have you always been a tinkerer?
fsm135: Most of the time, I'm the same way as you. In the original Mass Effect trilogy, for example, I always played male Shepard and always used the default face. Same with games like the older Fallouts and Skyrim. That was also my plan for Andromeda, but after playing a few hours with the default Sara, I got incredibly distracted by how goofy she looked. I couldn't make it past the Nexus arrival scene before deciding on scrapping her, in favor of a custom character. I uploaded mine in case other people didn't like the default, but didn't want to make their own.
The goal of your mod is to more closely align the character's face with the model it was based on. Why'd you settle on that?
fsm135: That was definitely part of the goal, but probably the part I failed at the most. After I realized how restrictive the character creator options were, I just tried to make a face that I felt suited the young, happy-go-lucky type voice and personality of Ryder. In that, I think it's a success.
So far as I know, BioWare hasn't commented on how or why it designed the Sara Ryder model, but isn't is possible BioWare just expressed artistic freedom here?
fsm135: I suppose it's possible, but I think they lost their way at some point. In the E3 trailer— where they show the female Ryder waking up at the end—her face is noticeably less goofy looking. She looked like an actual human. Still nothing like the model, but I think she was much better looking back then.
And then they made her even worse with the day one patch. From what I see on YouTube, Reddit, and Twitter, most others seem to agree that she got progressively worse with each of the updates. She doesn't even look real anymore.
The male character turned out just like the model, and actually looks pretty decent in the game. But for some reason, they just decided to throw the female character into the uncanny valley right before release, and now the resulting memes have killed any chance of my taking her seriously.
"When I say improved, I don't just mean how attractive the face is. The default face is inferior not because it's ugly, but because it doesn't seem real. It's a perfect representation of the uncanny valley."
Unlike most other mods, you didn't hack into the game. You used the tools BioWare implemented.
fsm135: To be completely honest, I think I got lucky here in that I got what I wanted on the first attempt, and one of the preset faces was pretty close to what I wanted. I created my character in the span of about a half hour. A side effect of the lackluster character creator, I guess. On the flip side, creating a good-looking male twin for my character has been pretty much impossible for me. Almost every preset they give you is pretty bizarre looking and you can't do much to change it.
When you were trying to match the face to the original model, did you simply have a copy of the photo right next to you?
fsm135: I looked at a few photos before starting, mainly from the male/female Ryder comparisons going around. I took the hair, skin, and eye colors based on those photos. Going into more detail than that is just not possible without being able to change eye shape, mouth type, etc. You can only choose the preset that seems closest and then tweak it slightly. So I didn't really need a photo reference most of the time.
You described the mod as "improved." What defines improvement?
fsm135: I guess it's different to everyone. In my opinion, this face is more attractive, animates better, and stays more faithful to the model than the default Sara. Those three factors, combined with how well she fits the voice actor, constitute an improvement for me. Some people will disagree and that's all good. It would be a boring world if we all had the same tastes.
To dig into that, don't you think there's a problem with using the term "improved"? It suggests the face is inferior. The reason I ask is because you don't have to go very far to find a lot of mods for games that are strictly centered around attractiveness, as if standard ideas of beauty are an inherent "improvement." What do you make of that?
fsm135: When I say improved, I don't just mean how attractive the face is. The default face is inferior not because it's ugly, but because it doesn't seem real. It's a perfect representation of the uncanny valley. My original intention wasn't actually attractiveness at all.
When I was using the default Sara, I found myself distracted by the faces she was making during what should be serious dialogue moments. People don't smile when they talk about their just-deceased parent, or while they are disarming a hostile attacker. Nor do people walk around with their eyes wide open as if they are surprised all the time. No matter what the situation, she just looked goofy and that made it difficult for me to get attached to the character or get into the story. My decision to remake the face was for the sake of immersion more than anything.
To your other point, I think people do see beautiful things as objectively better. Most people would rather play as an attractive character, rather than an ugly one, regardless of gender. Right or wrong, it's how we are wired. But I also believe that beauty is not universal; everyone has their own idea of beautiful. Nexus Mods illustrates this well, particularly in games like Elder Scrolls and Fallout.
As you say, there's a massive selection of different face and body mods, all with the intention of making characters attractive. And many of the most popular mods are quite different from each other.
"I tried making a variety of body shapes, and eventually it just became an experiment to see what types of bodies other people liked the most. "
To that end, you produced series of body presets for Fallout 4 called "beautiful bodies." (Editor's Note: That link is definitely NSFW.) What was your goal there?
fsm135: Not sure I had a specific goal with that one. I had previously uploaded my main Fallout character's Bodyslide settings (Editor's Note: Bodyslide is a tool that gives you greater flexibility to edit character models without having to get overly technical) to the Nexus mainly as a way to save them if I uninstalled the game, and to see how it would do as far as downloads.
It did surprisingly well, so I decided to make a few more and see how those did. My first body preset I uploaded was purely based what I felt was attractive, but after that I tried making a variety of body shapes and eventually it just became an experiment to see what types of bodies other people liked the most. Even some of the presets I didn't really like had a lot of downloads. On top of that, it's nice to have a variety of shapes and sizes in the game. It's all about immersion, right?
BioWare has promised they're going to introduce more customization options in the future for Andromeda. Will you return to this mod, or work on others?
fsm135: I hope that's true. It would be great if they made a proper character creator, and we'd be able to see a whole lot more variety in faces from other uploaders. So far, every "improved default" face I have seen (including mine) is based on the same head preset from the character creator. I like the way my character turned out but I would really like to have more options for making her unique. So, to answer your question: Yes, I'll definitely make revisions.