Mass Effect Andromeda: The Pathfinder

One of the most jarring elements of Andromeda’s dialogue was how everyone called you Pathfinder all the time. It was ridiculous, as if they’d written the script before coming up with Ryder’s name, so they just used the title and never bothered to search-replace that shit afterward. This would have been halfway acceptable in the Dragon Age canon, because at least in the more rigid formality of a medieval caste system being referred to by title was more common. Yet even with a built in excuse, Dragon Age: Inquisition still didn’t refer to you as Inquisitor nearly as much as Mass Effect: Andromeda called you Pathfinder. It’s true that Shepard is called Commander, but that at least makes sense in the rigid hierarchy of the military and even then it’s not as overused as the Pathfinder moniker. So what the hell, guys? What’s with the title?

I admit I can’t even fathom why anyone thought this was a good idea, but I sure as hell can rip it apart and show you why it’s wrong.

The Pathfinder

Isn’t that god damn special…

Pathfinder_briefing_logo.png

Being constantly referred to as “Pathfinder” was one of the most distracting elements of the game. For one the Andromeda Initiative is a civilian project, if there’s some kind of weird military hierarchy in place it’s never really elaborated on. Plus even if I could get past the idea that everyone in the Andromeda Initiative calls the Pathfinder by their title (which I can’t), I could never get past the fact that even the damn Angara refer to you by that title.

I think the new writing team behind Andromeda should have gone back and played Dragon Age: Origins before writing the dialogue. The character in Dragon Age: Origins has no name and yet the dialogue was written in such a way that it was never a problem. A few characters do refer to you as Warden, notably Loghain himself, but most of the time the dialogue simply finds a way around having to identify you by name.

Which is how conversations work, if you think about it. How often do people actually refer to you by your name when you’re talking to them? Unless you’re greeting or saying goodbye to someone, or trying to get someone’s attention, most of the time our names don’t come up in conversations we have with friends.

Unfortunately the writers of Mass Effect: Andromeda are apparently unfamiliar with how normal humans communicate with one another. Still, even if they couldn’t get around that, they could have at least used the very name they came up with: Ryder. There’s absolutely no excuse why I get referred to as Pathfinder more than Ryder.

Of course even worse than all of that, is how the Pathfinder is treated by the people he meets.

“Wait… you’re the pathfinder! Oh my god, I can’t believe it’s you!” – Pretty much everyone you meet.

Oh you can’t believe it’s me? Here, in the very outpost I founded by painstakingly making sure this planet is fit for human habitation? Really? What the hell is wrong with you?

The Best and Brightest
The best and the brightest of the Andromeda Initiative.

In the best case scenarios, the people you meet often treat you like a child meeting Mickey Mouse on their first trip to Disneyland. In the worst case scenarios, you’re treated like the second coming of Christ and the NPCs would fall to their knees in adoring rapture if someone at Bioware could have been bothered to animate that. Even Shepard, who legitimately saves the galaxy three god damn times in a row isn’t treated with the reverence the Pathfinder receives.

On the Nexus I ran into several “concerned citizens”, nameless NPCs that show up to complain about some decision you made in a threadbare attempt to make choices seem important. Instead of lively debates with these people, or being heckled and threatened by them if I disagreed, all these encounters ended with some variation of “well, you’re the pathfinder, you must know what you’re doing.”

Even worse is how much the administrative arm of the Andromeda Initiative defers to the Pathfinder. I realize that none of the characters were meant to be in charge of the Andromeda Initiative, and were elevated due to the deaths of their superiors, but come on, they’re not helpless either.

Tann.png
Especially this guy.

Director Tann is clearly made out to be a stereotypical bureaucrat who, while wanting to do good, is also deeply concerned about retaining his influence and power. Then the moment you show up it’s WHOOP here’s a ship, a crew, and a blank check to do whatever the hell you want. Ostensibly the reasoning is that Ryder is at least willing to do “something” about the situation. I could have swallowed that excuse if the narrative had shown us even an inkling that Ryder was qualified to do anything.

At some point the narrative needed to specifically tell us why Ryder is so god damn special. The Pathfinders are supposed to be highly trained specialists, the best of the best. The Turian pathfinder is former Blackwatch and his replacement is an ex-Spectre, the Salarian Pathfinder is a Dalatrass, and the Asari Pathfinder is a Matriarch and her replacement a legendary Asari Commando. Even Alec Ryder was former N7, an alumnus of the same program that gave us Commander Shepard.

Ryder on the other hand… was a glorified toll booth operator. Seriously, the game actually goes out of its way to point this out by having Ryder tell several people all he did in the Milky Way was guard a Mass Effect Relay. Why on Earth is this guy responsible for the survival of the human race?

God save us
When the apocalypse comes, it will fall to this man’s grandchildren to lead us to a new home.

Turns out the only reason Ryder is even on the Pathfinder team at all is good old fashioned nepotism. Ryder has no special skills, no advanced training, not even any applicable life experience to justify Ryder becoming a Pathfinder or even being on the team. But Daddy apparently wanted his kids on board, so to hell with it, his favored child gets to inherit the Pathfinder title like we’re a space-borne feudal kingdom. There are tons of stories where the hero can be a Joe Everyman forced into a situation beyond his skill level.

Unfortunately the narrative isn’t telling one of those stories.

Had Mass Effect: Andromeda told the story an in over his head Ryder struggling to fill his father’s shoes, then many of these problems would be moot. In fact that could have been a fun story, and one that would have made far more sense. Suvi Anwar has dual doctorates in both astrophysics and molecular biology. Two skills that would actually be helpful in the search for a new home, and all she contributes to the narrative is being a love interest for female Ryders.

I think Kallo speaks for all of us.

Yet instead of having to rely on your incredibly credentialed crew, everyone relies on you instead: the new guy with no discernible skills, education, or personality…

Ryder succeeds because the plot demands he succeeds, and that’s why the hero worship he receives from everybody is totally unearned. That’s why being called the Pathfinder was so awful, because all it did was remind us about how the narrative failed to make Ryder a hero.

In short: The Pathfinder is a fraud and it sucks to be kept being reminded of that fact.

More on Mass Effect: Andromeda

All That Matters is the Ending: Mass Effect Andromeda

Mass Effect Andromeda: The Importance of Family

Wrex versus Drack: Nuanced versus Obvious Writing 

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Mass Effect Andromeda: The Importance of Family

I was intrigued about the idea of having a family join you in Andromeda, in fact it gave me hope for the game because I thought it was a borderline genius idea. What better way to ground the game’s stakes than to include a family? Ryder’s family could have been the motivation players needed to want to build a new home. Remember how much we all wanted Tali to build that house on her homeworld? We could not only have had that again, but we could have helped build it ourselves.

If Bioware had put even an iota of effort into making us care about our family. Unfortunately they didn’t, instead Bioware just took it for granted that we would care about these strangers because they told us to.

Spoiler alert: No one cared.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

The Importance of Family

Ryder's Father

“My father is dead, I’m the new Pathfinder.” That’s how Ryder announces his father’s death to the members of the Nexus when he first meets them. An almost completely flat affect to the voice and no mournful look crosses Ryder’s face [although given the horrible animations, its possible that I just didn’t recognize the emotion on it] when he says it. Ryder talks about the death of his father like he’s talking about a lost piece of equipment, and his father has been dead for all of about ten minutes. Okay, maybe you can chalk that up to trauma, but there are so few opportunities to see the emotional toll of that loss, that ultimately it feels like Ryder doesn’t care. And if the player character doesn’t care, why the hell should we?

The sad part is that Alec Ryder was an interesting character, I thought the efforts that this guy went through to save his wife were pretty romantic. It exposed that underneath the gruff warrior facade he wore, was a man that loved so deeply that its loss was unfathomable to him. Or maybe it exposed that underneath his aloofness, was simply a man terrified of being alone. There were so many directions that Bioware could have gone.

Unfortunately for any of those stories to be explored, Alec Ryder would have had to survive the first 30 minutes of the game.

You can’t retroactively manufacture grief over a character’s loss. Of Mice and Men doesn’t start with the death of Lenny, Final Fantasy 7 doesn’t start with Aeris dying, and Harry Potter doesn’t begin with like 75% of its characters already dead.

Harry Potter death of Cedric
Seriously, shit gets dark in Harry Potter.

The audience has to be allowed to get to know the character, to grow to love that character, for their death to have any impact. We never got a chance to know Alec Ryder, never got a chance to actually interact with him. He barely has any lines, and he falls over dead before we even get through the prologue. Even worse the poor bastard doesn’t even get a funeral, apparently they just left his body to rot on a hell-blasted alien world.

The writers lazily tried to circumvent this emotional disconnect by saying Ryder’s father was emotionally distant and couldn’t express his feelings.

Bullshit.

You know who else had an emotionally distant father who didn’t know how express his feelings?

Me.

Yet a year after his deathI’m still recovering  from the emotional trauma of that loss.

It would have been one thing if we’d been presented with a choice to play as an emotionally detached sociopath, you want to roleplay that, roll with it. Problem is that we weren’t given a choice, Ryder doesn’t give a damn about his father dying no matter what dialogue option you choose. It’s impossible to make our Ryder break down in tears at his loss or rage at the unfairness of it all. He treats it with, well, the same casual indifference he treats his sister with.

Ryder's derp face
I don’t care how ugly she is, Ryder, she’s your sister and you’ll go back in there and talk with her damn it!

For the life of me I can’t even begin to understand the thought process that went into making a twin for Ryder. What was Bioware hoping to achieve here? Ryder’s twin has even less dialogue than Alec does, you only get two conversations with them, one of which while they’re still in a freaking coma. Then suddenly at the end of the game the twin is kidnapped, as if Bioware was hoping that would provide the stakes for the final battle. Unfortunately, since the twin is less characterized than most of the freaking NPCs you talk to, the danger of her being lobotomized by alien tech wasn’t all that motivating.

All I can do is theorize about what role the twin, and your family at large, were supposed to play in the game. Perhaps in the planning phases of Mass Effect: Andromeda the twin was supposed to play an integral role in the narrative, only for that role to be slashed down to insignificance due to budget and time constraints. For a while there I was expecting my Ryder to die a heroic death at the hands of the Kett, only to then take over the twin as my new character. On a narrative level that would have been bold, daring even, and could have done a lot for paving a new direction in the Mass Effect universe.

Obviously on a game play level it would probably suck, since I know I didn’t bother customizing my Ryder’s twin and would have been stuck with the default. Not to mention what to do with the skills you’ve earned.

Otherwise they could have at least made the twin a part of your crew, so that you could actually talk with them and learn who they are. Maybe then when the twin is abducted we’d actually give a damn that they’re in danger of dying. It would have been far better to cut all of the family stuff if Bioware wasn’t going to put any effort into it, because as it stands now it only highlights the failings of the writers.

We all have families, and even people who aren’t writers can tell the most weird, wonderful, and disturbing tales about their families. The fact that Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s writing team couldn’t even write a decent story about one of the most fundamental building blocks of human existence is, frankly, shocking. It’s as if this entire section of the game was written by aliens with no concept of family.

Family is an important part of everyone’s life. Even orphans who grew up alone will eventually find someone they call family, even if it’s not by blood. Including Ryder’s family, only to then pretend they don’t exist for most of the narrative, is inexcusable. If you’re a human living on Earth, I guarantee you have at least one good story about your family, and if you have that you have your foundation for telling fictional stories about family.

“Well, the story isn’t about Ryder’s family!” I can hear someone saying. Okay, fair enough, but just one question:

Then why are they in the story at all?

Ryder’s family doesn’t have any impact on the narrative. Ryder certainly doesn’t care about them. The only thing the twin contributes to the plot is to become a painfully contrived method for the Archon to actually use Remnant tech. You could replace that character with literally anybody else and nothing would change.

I don’t understand how this content managed to stay in, Bioware could easily have cut it out. Just make Alec the original Pathfinder, you’d barely have to touch any of his dialogue to pull it off either since the only time he acknowledges that you’re family is just before the shuttle ride. His secret diaries, the murder mystery of Garson, it would all still work fine with just minor tweaking. The family in Mass Effect: Andromeda just exposes how inept the writing is by its utter failure to tell a convincing story about family, and Bioware could have at least saved a little face by removing the half-assed attempt.

Still, I suppose there’s no undoing it now. Here’s hoping in the next installment, if there is one, that Ryder’s twin and mother have a bit more to do in the story than just lay there unconscious for 90% of it.

 

Wrex versus Drack: Nuanced versus Obvious Writing

Show don’t tell is an important rule in writing, especially in a visual medium like video games. However, it’s also a rule taken too literally by some writers, who think everything has to be action in order to show rather than tell. Taken literally, dialogue would seem to be telling instead of showing, but in reality good dialogue can show a story far better than any action ever could.

There’s a perfect example of this when comparing Mass Effect and Mass Effect: Andromeda, in how they introduce their Krogan companion.

This is how Drack is introduced to the player in Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s a serviceable entrance, obviously throwing a wraith through a window showcases Drack’s strength and brutality.

“Who are you?” – Drack

Drack’s interrogative singles him out as a hostile, but commenting on his “cool” entrance makes him lower his guard. Then he immediately grabs Ryder by the collar and asks again, who Ryder is. So either he sees through the bullshit flattery of Ryder and is annoyed by it, or thinks it’s a method of subterfuge, because he seems really pissed that Ryder doesn’t announce himself.

You’ll excuse me if I didn’t just trust a stranger from the Nexus, they haven’t exactly treated us Krogan well.  – Drack

Now this is expository dialogue, meaning that instead of the dialogue being there to characterize the person speaking it, it’s there to convey important plot information. As expository dialogue it works, it gets across the information Bioware wanted to convey, and yet it’s also so dry that it doesn’t do much else.

In fact, I’m not really going to tackle the rest of the dialogue, because it all serves to establish three things about Drack as a character:

  1. He’s an effective warrior, as evidenced by throwing a wraith through what I imagine is not ordinary glass.
  2. He enjoys battle, relishes in it, perhaps even driven by it.
  3. Is suspicious of non-Krogan.

That’s a respectable amount of information to start with. As I said, this is a serviceable introduction. Not good, not bad. It does its job, but there’s no imagination to it. Showing a Krogan loves battle and violence by throwing something through a window is, well, a bit obvious. Even worse though, is that all of the character traits this dialogue reveals are just “no duh” moments, they’re all stereotypically Krogan. You could have safely assumed all this just by looking at him.

The absolute worst part of this whole exchange is that Drack’s dialogue isn’t true to his character. When you meet him, Drack is dismissive of the Pathfinder’s ability and hostile to humans in general. Yet the moment you bring him on board your ship, Drack is one of the friendliest Krogan you’ll ever meet and affectionately refers to the Pathfinder as “kid.”

Now Wrex’s introduction [0:20-0:40, a mere 20 seconds] conveys so much information about his character that it’s actually a brilliant piece of writing.

“Witnesses saw you making threats in Fist’s bar. Stay away from him.” – C-Sec Officer

“I don’t take orders from you.” – Wrex

Right off the bat we see Wrex needs to establish dominance in any conversation and immediately lashes out against authority figures hoping to control him. We later find out this is in keeping with Krogan cultural norms, where asserting dominance is often the difference between life and death. To submit to the demands of this squishy human would be an intolerable weakness.

“This is your only warning, Wrex.” – C-Sec Officer

“You should warn Fist: I will kill him.” – Wrex

This one line of dialogue conveys not only information about Wrex as a character, but also important world-building information. First of all, Wrex is comfortable with killing and is confident in his ability to do so. Secondly, he wants people to know that Fist is marked for death, which makes perfect sense and leads into the world-building.

The Shadow Broker hired Wrex to kill Fist for betraying him, but Fist won’t make an effective example if he just vanishes one day. The Shadow Broker sent Wrex because he wanted to send a message to everyone that you don’t betray the Shadow Broker. This establishes the Shadow Broker in the player’s mind as a powerful and dangerous entity. I love this line in particular because it shows you don’t need to resort to sloppy expository writing like Drack’s dialogue in order to convey important information to the player.

BrokerShip.jpg
The first brick in the road to The Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC, was laid right here in Wrex’s dialogue.

“You want me to arrest you, Wrex?” – C-Sec Officer

“Heheh, I want you to try.” – Wrex

That one line reveals so much about Wrex’s character it’s almost ridiculous, because the fact of the matter is, Wrex is bluffing.

Wrex knows he could easily kill the unarmed C-Sec officers surrounding him, but there’s no way he could fight his way out of C-Sec Headquarters and murder Fist, let alone escape the Citadel. Yet Wrex is also a consummate professional and he has a target to eliminate, so he can’t have C-Sec constantly harassing him. So he bluffs, go ahead and arrest me, Wrex is telling them, but I guarantee it won’t be worth the trouble. Wrex’s words here speak legions about his character.

Even though Wrex is capable of amazing feats of strength and brutality, he doesn’t use brute strength as a first resort. He thinks strategically, he plans his moves carefully, and sizes up his opponents. He’s a brutal warrior who knows when not to reach for his weapon.

This twenty seconds of dialogue establishes multiple facets of Wrex’s character:

  1. He’s a warrior confident in his abilities and has no problem killing.
  2. Though he’s comfortable killing, he takes no pleasure in it unless he has a personal motive. Otherwise, it’s just business.
  3. He’s cunning, and will plan his strategies multiple moves in advance. Shooting his way through a problem is both a last step and last resort.
  4. He’s able to quickly size up his opponents, both in courage and in strength, and will seek to bluff and intimidate before resorting to violence.
  5. Wrex needs to establish his strength and dominance in a conversation.

Proud, cunning, dominant, violent yet not for it’s own sake, and even diplomatic in his own way.  That’s a pretty respectable number of character traits for a twenty second conversation.

Bros.jpg
You don’t shake hands with many Krogan in Mass Effect, and there’s a reason Wrex is one of them.

Even better, what we learn here in this scene does reflect the character we come to know. Through the course of the game we find out that Wrex is an old warrior, who has seen centuries of combat so it makes sense that he not only knows how to kill, but is completely comfortable with it. Yet we also learn that Wrex wants to reunite the Krogan and restore their once proud heritage of bravery, sacrifice, and strength. He hates the modern Krogan ideals of mindless bloodlust, so it makes sense that he would reject the glorification of pointless violence.

Wrex’s introduction is how a great example of how a light touch and subtlety can more effectively introduce a character than some flashy, yet empty action scene. Drack’s introduction is a microcosm of Andromeda‘s overall problem, it’s too obvious, unimaginative, and unpolished to successfully carry the story they were trying to tell.

In the end, there’s only two types of writing. There’s Wrex writing and then there’s Drack writing.

So be Wrex, everyone.

Be Wrex.

Wrex is awesome.png
Or else.

More on Mass Effect: Andromeda

All That Matters is the Ending: Mass Effect Andromeda

Mass Effect Andromeda: The Importance of Family

All That Matters is the Ending: Mass Effect Andromeda

This was a difficult post to write. There’s just so much wrong with this game’s writing that I had a hard time organizing my thoughts. I’ll need to do several follow up articles to cover everything that went wrong with it, but suffice it to say that the glitchy gameplay and hilariously bad facial animations aren’t the only things wrong with Mass Effect: Andromeda.

Which is a shame because I wanted to like this game, I really did. It sounded like my fantasy Star Trek game, exploring and communicating with strange new alien species while commanding my own starship. Unfortunately Mass Effect: Andromeda is not a sequel to Mass Effect…

It’s a remake.

A poorly done remake at that.

Rather than take their clean slate and create a new Mass Effect universe, Bioware instead has opted to simply retell the same stories we’ve already seen but without the nuance and skill that made the originals so memorable.

[[Spoiler’s to Follow]]

All That Matters is the Ending:

Mass Effect Andromeda

Mass Effect Andromeda logo

As I said before, there are just so many problems that I’ve had to limit this post to the top three problems I felt were the most crippling.

Here are those three problems and why they derailed what was Bioware’s last chance to impress…

1. Ryder’s Dialogue is Awful

face-is-tired-2
Somehow this isn’t even the worst line to make it into the game.

There’s so much wrong with the dialogue in this outing of Mass Effect that I can’t possibly squeeze it into this review and a thorough dissection of what went wrong will be coming soon. However, I do want to point out one huge problem with the dialogue that cripples Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s every attempt at creating any kind of drama:

Ryder doesn’t care. 

Or if he does, the dialogue doesn’t inform me of his feelings, which is basically the whole point of dialogue. Ryder’s dialogue is often completely inappropriate for the dramatic situations he finds himself in.

The biggest example is during a raid on the Archon’s ship after it has captured the Salarian Ark. Ryder discovers the remains of dozens of Salarians who have essentially been vivisected and their organs removed while they were still alive. An atrocity straight out of the darkest periods of human history.

I had been completely indifferent until this point, Mass Effect: Andromeda hadn’t managed to evoke a single emotion from me. But now, finally, I was pissed. It was the first time I felt genuine hatred for the Kett because it was the first time Andromeda showed me why I should hate the Kett, rather than simply telling me.

At one point I passed by an observation window where two Kett scientists were still operating on a Salarian. Vetra and Jaal, my companions for the mission, began beating on the glass, with Jaal roaring with rage and threatening to kill every last Kett on the ship. At this point I was pumped, my face was actually hot with anger, and I was ready to slaughter every god damn rock-faced alien on the ship with my bare hands.

Rock Kett.png
Fuck you, you god damn monster, I’m gonna… huh? What do you mean that’s not Kett?

Shortly after that, Ryder and company found a Krogan who had been Exhalted, and finally I was given a chance to hear Ryder’s opinion the matter. I chose the casual option, thinking this would allow him to vent his anger in a profanity laden oath to crush the Kett.

“I’m really starting to hate these guys.” – Ryder, after seeing Nazi-style medical torture and experimentation.

That was his response to the horrors he’d witnessed. Ryder wasn’t angry, if anything he just seemed slightly annoyed at seeing the atrocities being committed around him. All of that anger I felt, the first actual emotion the game had succeeded in drawing out, evaporated in an instant. The complete nonchalance of Ryder destroyed Andromeda‘s own dramatic tension. And this is ultimately a problem that crops up again and again.

I understand wanting to differentiate Ryder from Shepard, and in many ways I do enjoy how less sure of himself Ryder is, but making the character less self-assured doesn’t mean lobotomizing the characters emotions. Ryder never yells, never cries, rarely laughs, he seems utterly incapable of expressing any strong feelings. The result is that the dialogue completely hamstrings the emotional scenes in the game. When Jaal finds out about the origin of the Kett, I wanted to express sympathy. To reach out and grab him, tell him we would find a way to help or make the Kett pay for this atrocity, but instead I was limited to four tepid options, each more bland than the last.

There are a handful of scenes that have an interrupt option, but even these seem tame compared to the old Paragon/Renegade interrupts of Mass Effect 2 and 3. When you first meet Peebee, you’re given the option to push her off. Except that’s not really what the character does, you just sort of gently move her aside. Even when given an old school renegade interrupt in shooting the Cardinal at the Kett base, Ryder does it with such indifference that it loses all impact.

While I appreciate the effort to get away from the Paragon/Renegade system, the new system is ultimately too shallow to do anything with the roleplaying part of this RPG. First of all, the categories are way too nebulous and vague, what I would consider an emotional response is far different than what Ryder would end up saying every time I picked that category. Secondly, Ryder often ends up saying something completely different to what you’d expect based on the prompts you’re given. And finally… no one really seems to care what you have to say anyway.

Ryder's derp face
Which, to be fair, is kind of understandable when your face looks like this all the time.

The most jarring part of the game I’ve encountered came at the very beginning, just before taking off in the Tempest. Liam asks Ryder how he’s holding up, and one of the responses is to be honest and tell Liam you’re having a hard time with your father’s death. Ryder says something to the effect of “I hear voices, and not just SAM’s,” or something like that.

And Liam has no response. The camera just zooms out slowly while Ryder and Liam stand there in the most awkward silence possible. I really hope someone has a video of this sequence, because it’s the most unintentionally hilarious moment in the entire game. Like on a certain level it almost works because what can you say when the last best hope for humanity admits that maybe he’s losing his mind. Yet it does nothing for furthering the characters of either Ryder, who never brings up the emotional toll of his father’s death again, or Liam, who you think would report such a conversation to the doctor or at least offer some words of encouragement.

The story of Ryder slowly losing his mind to grief might actually have been an interesting story to explore, but unfortunately it doesn’t because –

2. Andromeda Focuses on the Wrong Stories

The Archon and Company.png

Andromeda not only had the potential to give us a new take on Mass Effect, but also sold itself on that very concept. Yet time and again, they opted to simply retell the same stories from the original trilogy instead. I mean if this wasn’t made by the same company as the originals, this would be blatant plagiarism.

It starts with a fledgling humanity trying to find its place among the stars, there’s a big bad threatening to destroy humanity (the Kett) and lurking just beyond is an unknowable horror threatening to destroy the galaxy at large (the Scourge). There’s an ancient precursor race wiped out by a mysterious force. Your companions are a Krogan, a Turian, a male and female human, the Quarian is now an Angaran, and of course Ryder is the new Shepard.

It’s not like there weren’t plenty of other, better stories right there in front of them. For instance, let’s talk about Drack.

Drack has an enjoyable story and he’s likable enough, but ultimately he’s a pale imitation of Wrex. His granddaughter Kesh, on the other hand, could have made for a much better Krogan ally, allowing us to get a new perspective on the Krogan. Kesh is a Krogan that’s defined by her intelligence and her wits, rather than her savagery, and I would have loved getting to know her better. Kesh’s character and history was a story worth the telling

Kesh
And it’s not like she couldn’t have held her own in combat, because intelligent and witty aside, she’s still Krogan. 

Even how Andromeda tells the story of the Krogan species is a retelling of the original Mass Effect. The Krogan again come to the rescue of the other species, only this time it’s mutineers instead of the Rachni, only to be once again completely screwed afterwards. There was a much better story to be told right there in front of them in the form of the Nexus’s first year and its battles with the Kett.

The Krogan could have been the heroes of this new frontier, in fact Eos would have been the perfect habitat for them considering their resistance to radiation and its similarities to Tuchanka. Drack and his squad of scouts were already destroying the Kett handily when you first meet up with him, in fact the Kett are just fragile little gemstones compared to the walking tanks that are the Krogan. Instead of having yet another story of Krogan humiliated and defeated, we could have had a story about a Krogan race resurgent and triumphant.

There were a dozen different ways to tell this story, Andromeda was offering a fresh start, but instead of writing their own story they simply traced over what was written there before.

The biggest wasted potential of Andromeda is in how it utterly failed to build on its own premise. I was genuinely excited by the prospect of exploration and discovery becoming the cornerstone of this new Mass Effect, it sounded like my fantasy Star Trek game, going to distant worlds and discovering new civilizations. I expected to find Andromeda alive with species both wondrous and grotesque. Yet exploration and discovery, despite the dialogue repeatedly telling you you’re an explorer, aren’t the focus of the story.

Corypheus_Closeup
Instead Bioware tells us the story of a bunch of Corypheus cosplayers.

Instead it’s a story about an evil race of aliens trying to wipe out humanity. Only this time the aliens are far less interesting, both visually and narratively, and instead of a charismatic villain like Saren we get the near mute Archon who feels like Corypheus 2.0. The fight against the Kett dominates the storyline, but ultimately I found myself struggling to care about any of it.

You know what I did care about? Finding the missing Arks, building colonies, and exploring the galaxy.

The missing Arks are perhaps the most perplexing part of the narrative, because it’s never made to seem all that important. It’s presented to the player as busy work, something to do while you’re out in case you get bored, but don’t worry yourself over it. If you ask Cora, Kallo, or the Turians about the missing Arks, they all share the same basic indifference.

“Yeah, they’re missing, and we’ll let you know if we hear anything about it, but don’t worry yourself over it.”  That’s what it always boils down to, and it did more to ruin my immersion in the story than any other element of the game. Finding the the missing Arks should have been a massive priority,  if not because of the humanitarian implications, than at least because of the resources each one contained.

Saying they’re lost and the Nexus doesn’t know where to look is a completely unacceptable attitude for the narrative to be presenting. During the course of the game, you extrapolate the currents of the Scourge to find a centuries old artificial planet floating in deep space. Yet when trying to find the Arks, SAM can’t estimate the Ark’s trajectory based on their final destination? Find out where an Ark would likely run into a Scourge cloud?

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A shoulder shrug isn’t the appropriate response to losing one of these things.

The Kett could still have played a role, the closest I came to actually becoming engrossed in the storyline came when I was rescuing the Salarian Ark. Racing to find the Arks before the Kett would have been infinitely more involving than trying to beat them to Meridian ended up being. Instead of yet another race across the galaxy to find an alien artifact before the bad guy, Andromeda could have told the story of finding friends and family amid alien stars.

Building outposts is certainly presented as important by the narrative, but unfortunately the gameplay doesn’t reflect that importance. So many of the quests sounded fascinating on paper; finding out why so many settlers became pirates, hunting down poachers on Voeld, putting to rest the many people who died trying to found colonies. Unfortunately, as interesting as these quests sounded, actually completing them was a chore. Everything devolved into a go to this point and either scan, collect, or kill an objective.

Similarly, while getting a planet to the minimum viability rating took time, once an outpost was settled it was instantly completed. I wasn’t expecting to build my outposts into bustling metropolises like Ilium, and in fact I actually like how large the outposts are, I just felt cheated that they start out that size. Huge satellite dishes, shield generators, sensor arrays, and dozens of buildings all show up over night. It would have been more rewarding had the outposts started with a smattering of buildings and slowly grown larger as you complete quests for the colony.

Finally, Andromeda suffers from the same problem as every other sci-fi franchise that’s tried to reboot its property in a different galaxy: the new galaxy is boring. This seems to be such a common failing that its hard to blame the relatively inexperienced writers of Andromeda for failing this test. Voyager’s Delta Quandrant was a lifeless wasteland whose only permanent species was the Borg, and Stargate Atlantis’s new galaxy held only Space Vampires and the Not-Space-Vampires.  Similarly, Andromeda’s Heleus Cluster is home to only the Angara and the Kett.

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And I hesitate to even include the Kett, because shockingly, a species of sentient rocks just aren’t all that interesting.

Mass Effect’s Milky Way was teeming with varied and interesting lifeforms, all with fascinating quirks and physiology. While on subsequent playthroughs I saw how Mass Effect 1’s first Citadel section had pacing problems, my first visit I didn’t even notice them because I was engrossed in getting to know all the different species and rich history of the universe. Talking with the Elcor ambassador and learning their species’ charming speaking patterns is one of my favorite memories of the original trilogy. Andromeda feels utterly devoid of life by comparison, not only are there only two species, but those species aren’t even properly fleshed out.

Every Angara I went through went through great pains to tell me how big their families were, as if the writers were hoping that one trait alone would be enough to curry interest in their new aliens. It’s not. Meanwhile the Kett are religious extremists, but we never find out any meaningful details about what they worship or why.

And all of this eventually comes together to ruin what could have otherwise been a serviceable ending.

3. It’s Ending is Rushed and Unearned

Unlike Inquisition’s pitiful final battle with Corypheus, where he essentially falls over dead with little fanfare, Andromeda at the very least delivers a visually spectacular battle that could have been very satisfying. Unfortunately, the ending is completely let down by the fact that narrative never earns such a colossal battle. I’m going to pull out an old school picture from my first review of Mass Effect 3.

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You remember this guy right?

I pulled this out during my initial Mass Effect 3 review to illustrate how the ending had failed to provide a falling action and resolution. This time I’m pulling it out to illustrate how Mass Effect: Andromeda failed to create the rising tension necessary for a good climax.

To be fair, the original Mass Effect could suffer this problem too. If you didn’t do Virmire as your final mission before the ending, finishing up whatever main quest was left could feel like busywork by comparison. However, by Mass Effect 2, Bioware had managed to nail an almost perfect curve for their rising action.

Over the course of Mass Effect 2, the stakes of the story slowly ramp up and that’s reflected in the action. From the slower first act where Shepard begins to uncover the Collector’s identity and plans, to the second act aboard the seemingly derelict Collector ship, and finally the crescendo of the Reaper’s attack on the Normandy and the Suicide mission. The rising action was so finely tuned that it never felt like it was rushing through the story, nor did it ever feel like it was being unnecessarily padded.

Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s story somehow managed to feel both incredibly padded and extremely rushed at the same time. The rising action serves several important purposes; setting the stakes of the story, revealing the villains abilities and goals, and gradually ramping up the action. Unfortunately it failed to do any of those things.

The stakes of the story are never clearly defined. In a broad sense, the very survival of humanity is at stake, but it’s not enough to simply tell us that. The story needs to provide specific threats to human survival. They even try to throw your twin in there as something at stake, but since the twin has only a handful of lines, we never get to feel emotionally invested in that character. Human survival has been the stake of every Mass Effect game, but this is the first time I never felt any actual danger from the villains.

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Remember when Mass Effect villains used to be capable and charismatic?

Much like Corypheus from Dragon Age: Inquisition, the Archon never establishes himself as a credible threat to either humanity or Ryder. The plot was constantly telling me I was in a race against time, but I never felt that was the case. Where as Saren was fully capable of finding the Conduit and using it, the Archon was consistently unable to use even the most basic of the Remnant’s technology. What’s the rush? The guy has been banging his head against this thing for who knows how long, I really don’t feel like time is a factor.

Meanwhile the Kett at large, unlike the Reapers or Collectors, never become the larger-than-life villains they pretend to be. Ryder’s small team manages to wipe out multiple Kett bases all by themselves, they never attack any of the incredibly soft targets that are Ryder’s new outposts, and the Angara continue to resist them centuries after first contact. The only points in the Kett’s favor are their genetic manipulation and the strange mind control they use.

If this had been the first time Mass Effect had shown us a villain that can genetically manipulate species and dominate their minds, that might have gone a long way to making the Kett a credible threat. However, just like everything else, this a story that’s already been told by the original Mass Effect. The Reapers did it all to a much more effective degree than the Kett.

Not that the Kett couldn’t get there, they could have if the story had been allowed to breathe a little. Andromeda was just hitting its stride when I was rescuing the Salarian Ark, and at the time I thought that was about the midpoint of the story based several factors:

  1. The stakes had been significantly raised by threatening the extinction of the Salarians in Adromeda.
  2. The Kett became far more threatening due to how close they came to wiping out the Salarians.
  3. The action was by far the most intense of the story.
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When the player is immortal, you don’t create drama by threatening the player. You create drama by threatening NPCs we care about.

However, rather than build on the momentum this mission built, Andromeda opts to launch straight into its endgame. An incredibly boring endgame at that, taking place inside the derelict hull of a Remnant superstructure. Visually the levels are nice to look at, but narratively they actually reduce the stakes of the game. Instead of giving us people to save, and cool characters to put in danger like the Salarian pathfinder, without something at stake other than “get to point X”, there’s no thrill. No danger.

No fun.

No, I take that back, I did get a good laugh out the ending sequence.

When the Archon launched into a “I let you win” speech after activating Meridian, I laughed out loud, it was just such a ridiculous idea. This bumbling, incompetent moron who has been pawing at inert pieces of rock trying to activate Meridian suddenly becomes this mastermind and it just destroyed by suspension of disbelief. Like Mass Effect 3’s ending, in which the Citadel suddenly appeared over Earth because reasons, the Archon seizes control of the Hyperion and abducts your twin. How he even knew there was a twin is a question that was never answered.

The hijacking of the Hyperion also punches some rather large holes in the already flimsy plot. For instance, the Nexus had been hanging there in a near crippled state for nearly a year before Hyperion shows up, why have the Kett not attacked it before now? The ending also glosses over exactly how the Kett boarded the Hyperion while it was moored to the Nexus. Do none of those ships, or the Nexus itself, have any kind of defensive armaments?

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I’d think you could squeeze at least one gun on here.

Finally there’s the one choice that seems to actually affect the ending, whether you had all the pathfinders. I was just tired of all the fetch quests by the time I reached the ending and couldn’t be bothered with another “go to point A and scan object B” mission, so the Turian Ark went undiscovered. As a result, Captain Dunn died.

My response to that?

“Who the hell is Captain Dunn?”

I had met Captain Dunn at the very beginning of the game, which was near forty hours earlier, and once or twice for a couple of side quests. I was never given an opportunity to know her as a character. I mean I obviously clued into the fact that she was the Hyperion’s captain, but that fact alone doesn’t mean her sacrifice is going to have any kind of emotional impact. It’s as if Bioware saw how much everyone loved Captain Anderson’s final moments, and decided that it was the label of Captain that everyone loved rather than the character himself.

In the end the story was just too rushed for the ending to have any kind of weight to it. In fact the whole game feels rushed. Somehow, despite having five years to work on it, it was rushed. Or perhaps simply overly ambitious.

Either way, I really wanted to like this game. Unfortunately it ended too soon and left me asking only one question:

What was the point of it all?

 

More on Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect Andromeda: The Importance of Family

Wrex versus Drack: Nuanced versus Obvious Writing 

A Monster Calls: When Stories Speak to Us

I’ve been sitting on this blog post for almost a month, I wrote it immediately after watching A Monster Calls, and the words poured out of me in a way they rarely have. Yet as usual I was afraid to post what I wrote. Normally that just means it gets buried in my ever increasing pile of drafts that I’ve never finished, but this one wouldn’t stay buried. I kept coming back to it, and unless I post it, I don’t think I’ll ever move on.

This isn’t a storytelling review of A Monster Calls, which I would like to do at some point. Instead this just me talking about how this movie spoke to me and helped me confront the grief and guilt I still hold onto a year after my father’s death.

[Spoilers, I completely ruin the ending, so if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend you do before reading this.]

A Monster Calls

When Stories Speak to Us

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A Monster Calls is a beautifully written movie, and the book it’s based is now on my Must Read list. This film is a shining example of the power of storytelling because it can help people deal with their darkest and most difficult emotions.

I know that because A Monster Calls helped me. My father died over a year ago and I’m still struggling with all the things I miss about him. The biggest struggle has been wrestling with my guilt. Not just for missed opportunities or the petty arguments we had. No my guilt ran deeper than I ever realized, and it was A Monster Calls that helped me see it.

In the film, the main character Conor, struggles to come to terms with his mother’s impending death. He keeps having a recurring nightmare of trying to save his mom from falling into a bottomless abyss. When finally Conor finishes the dream, he reveals the reason for the guilt that had been gnawing at him for the entire movie… he let his mom go on purpose, allowing her to fall into the abyss. He was tired of struggling to save her, tired of the fear and the desperation… tired of the pain. He wished to be free of it.

“The most human wish of all.” As the Monster might say.

I wished to be free of my pain too, but my crime was even greater than Conor’s, because I made that wish years before my dad was struck with cancer.

My dad, like me, suffered from depression. Unlike me, however, he never found an effective treatment to manage it. For seventy years he carried his depression with him like a festering, never-healing wound that sapped the life out of him. My mom and I tried to get him to go to a doctor, a therapist, anyone who might be able to help. At least for a while.

Then I stopped trying.

I wanted it to be over. I wanted him to be gone.

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And like Conor, I wanted to follow right after him.

I told myself I wanted him gone because he could never see the good in anything. I wanted him gone because of the way he treated the waitress at a restaurant. I wanted him gone because of dozens of petty slights and arguments, real and imagined. I wanted him gone because at least then he’d be at peace.

I wanted his pain to end. That was the lie I told myself.

The truth that I was afraid to speak was this:

I wanted him gone because I wanted my own pain to end.

It hurt to see my father because I can remember so clearly how bad my depression once was. Being depressed was like being a raw nerve with no protection, the mechanisms that most people have to deal with their emotions didn’t exist. Every schoolmate’s insults made my heart hurt as if someone had reached into my chest and was squeezing it in a clenched fist. Every news article I read about endangered animals, the deteriorating environment, or even a passing asteroid sent me into a tailspin of despair about the world around me.

I remember that pain with perfect, piercing clarity. Every time I saw my father I felt that pain squeezing and clawing deep in my chest. He was a constant reminder of my own painful memories. Worse than that, I was terrified that he was a glimpse into my future. As amazing as my medication is at managing my symptoms, there are days that still get to me, where my defenses come down and every emotion stabs into me like a knife. What if one day it stops working? Will I become my father, unable to see the life, love, and happiness that surrounds him?

I wished it was over.

So when his terminal cancer diagnosis came, it was my wish come true. He had a year to live the doctors told us in October, by the following November he could no longer walk. My wish was coming true faster than I could have hoped. Throughout the course of my father’s illness, I never felt afraid or sad, I didn’t even cry once.

This was what I wanted.

It wasn’t until the morning of January 14th, 2016, as his labored breathing slowed to pausing, rattling gasps, that I realized a truth that I had been hiding from myself.

I didn’t want him to go.

It wasn’t until I whispered in his ear that I loved him that I realized the man my father really was.

My father spent his entire life fighting against a chemically imbalanced brain that made him see the world as darker than it truly was. I have no doubt he spent a majority of his days wondering why he should go on, fantasizing about killing himself. For 72 years he fought his depression to a standstill. I remember the pain of depression, and sometimes I still hear the seductive siren call of suicide.

I know it must have taken immense courage to survive that. If ever my medication fails, I’m not sure I’d have the strength to do the same.

My father deteriorated faster than the doctor’s were saying he should. At the time, I thought it was yet another example of his selfishness and weakness.

But I realize now that my father was simply ready to go, he’d fought his war to the bitter end, and now he wanted it to be over.

But I didn’t want him to go. 

Here, at the end, as his breath grew shallower and the pauses between breaths became longer, It was too late to tell him that I didn’t want him to leave. It was too late to tell him that I loved him and that I was sorry for all the stupid things that kept us estranged for so much of our lives. So I did the only thing I could.

I told him it was okay to go and held his hand until he took his final breath.

That was the truth I was so afraid to speak, the crime for which I feel so ashamed: In my selfish desire to see an end to my own pain, I wasted the moments I should have been cherishing.

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“Stories are how I topple my enemies.” – The Monster

When your enemy are emotions like grief and guilt, stories are the only thing that can topple your enemies.

Thank you, Monster, for helping me topple mine.

The Great Villain of Dragon Age Origins: Loghain Mac Tir

One of the most important parts of crafting a good villain is giving them motivations that make sense to the villain. Granted this isn’t always necessary, sometimes a wildcard villain can be just as memorable, I love Heath Ledger’s Joker as much as anyone. Still, the Joker is the exception that proves the rule. You want people to remember your villain? To truly hate and despise them? Then that villain needs to act in keeping with his or her character.

To illustrate this point, I’ve decided to do a couple of small articles on some of my favorite villains and why they were so memorable.

The Great Villain:

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Loghain Mac Tir (Dragon Age Origins)

Much of what makes Loghain such a great villain is his past history and how it dictates his actions during the events of Dragon Age: Origins. I wrote about the importance of a good backstory during one of my articles on Westworld, and Loghain is a great example of what I was talking about.

Dragon Age: Origins takes place during the 5th Darkspawn Blight, but Loghain’s story starts decades earlier with the Orlesian occupation of Ferelden. For nearly a century the empire of Orlais had occupied Ferelden, and as occupying armies are wont to do, they inflicted unspeakable atrocities on the native Fereldens (Fereldans? Fereldenites?). Loghain was witness to many of these crimes, and it left scars on his psyche far deeper than any blade could reach.

“Hate doesn’t describe it. I’ve seen painted, masked lords beat an old farmer to death with riding crops. To this day, I don’t know why. Is that hate? I saw good, sensible men fighting armored chevaliers with nothing—no weapons, no armies, not even hope of success—to see the occupation end. Is that hate?” – Loghain on the occupation of Ferelden.

Loghain hates Orlais, but behind every great hate lies an even greater fear. It’s that fear that dominates Loghain’s every action and it’s that fear that makes his actions during Dragon Age: Origins make so much sense. Ferelden defeated Orlais and won its freedom, but the scars that Loghain suffered to his psyche would never heal. Orlais terrified him, the idea of once again becoming the vassal of a hated enemy was more than he could bear.

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Hate is the wall we build to keep fear out.

Yet Loghain’s fear is being constantly belittled and dismissed by Cailan.

“Our arguments with the Orlesians are a thing of the past.” – King Cailan

When a true leader sees fear in his subordinates, there are many different ways to alleviate that fear and build confidence. King Cailan doesn’t do any of them however, instead he patronizingly dismisses Loghain’s very understandable concerns, and then pulls rank on him. In fact, King Cailan treats Loghain with disdain and disrespect at every opportunity.

And still, despite this constant ill treatment, Loghain still tries to protect Cailan from himself, to insist that he not fight on the frontline. In many ways this speaks legions about Loghain’s character, namely his fierce loyalty to his best friend King Maric. Maric’s son is everything that Maric wasn’t, but it’s still his best friend’s only child, and Loghain did what he could to protect the stupid imbecile.

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Loghain tried to warn you dude.

So how does all this translate into a believable character? Well, let’s look at the situation at Ostagar from Loghain’s perspective. On the one hand you have the upstart brat King Cailan who not only wants to bring Orlais armies marching into Ferelden, but is also planning to dump your daughter and marry the Empress. On the other you have the Grey Wardens, a bunch of aloof warriors claiming to be the last hope for humanity and taking advantage of King Cailan’s romanticism to use good Ferelden soldiers in their little war. The last blight was over 400 years ago, the Darkspawn are but a bunch of fairytale nonsense to Loghain. Sure, he has seen their armies, but Loghain knows how to defeat armies.

“Perhaps he believes the Blight is an army he can outmaneuver[…]” – Flemeth

That’s exactly what Loghain thinks and to his eye it’s not even that threatening of an army. The Darkspawn horde is a mob of monsters using scavenged or poorly crafted weapons and armor. Compared to the armored medieval tanks that were the Chevaliers of Orlais, the Darkspawn must make for a pitiful sight. For Loghain, Orlais would always be the enemy, and so he did what he thought was best. He rallied his army to defeat the Darkspawn only to prove to Orlais that Ferelden was strong and that it would never kneel to them again.

Yet Loghain was also not willing to throw his entire army against the Darkspawn horde when, to his mind, Orlais was just waiting in the wings to pounce on a weakened Ferelden. To expect him to rush to the defense of King Cailan, a man who seemed more than willing to submit the Orlesian crown, was, perhaps, an unrealistic expectation.

 

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Honestly, Cailan is so insufferable that this epic facepalm is completely deserved.

None of this makes Loghain a misunderstood good guy, nor does it make his actions justified or correct. King Cailan’s willingness to put aside the wars of their past makes him a great diplomat and, perhaps, the King to lead Ferelden into a new era of peace. And obviously, Loghain’s belief that the Darkspawn could be defeated militarily was completely wrong. Loghain’s fear of Orlais also led him to commit atrocities that are indefensible no matter what the circumstances: selling the Elves into slavery, the torture of the Denerim Teryn’s son, siding with Arl Howe and approving his betrayal of the Couslands.

Making a good villain doesn’t mean making them into a hero, it simply means making sure that the villain stays true to his own character, which is exactly what Loghain does. Understanding his history, his fear of Orlais, allows the player to see why Loghain acts the way he does. He’s still a bad guy, but he’s a bad guy we can understand.

And in the end, even Loghain understands that it was fear that guided him.

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“Please, I’ve done so much wrong. Allow me to do one last thing right.” – Loghain Mac Tir, before he slays the Archdemon.

 

Loghain is a classic tragic villain. He’s a man who doesn’t act evil for evil’s sake, but because he feels that not to act as he does would be an even greater evil. Had I lived the life Loghain had, seen the horrors he’d seen, would I have acted any differently? I would like to think so, obviously, but one can never truly know.

And that’s why Loghain Mac Tir is the great villain of Dragon Age: Origins.

The Beginning Matters Too: Rogue One

When you start writing a story, it’s always important to keep in mind what kind of story you’re trying to tell. Rogue One struggled with this, and as a writer myself, it’s hard not to sympathize. On the one hand they wanted to tell a standard Star Wars adventure story about Jyn Erso and the search for her father, but on the other was a war story about the rebels who stole the plans to the Death Star. They’re both good stories, unfortunately trying to tell both of them at the same time just ended up cluttering up the first act.

Jyn Erso’s story had some serious potential and I’m sad to think of what might have been. Seriously, both Mads Mikkelsen and Forest Whitaker gave some amazing performances, seeing both their characters more fully explored would have been a real treat. Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera in particular seemed like a fascinating character, and I wanted to know so much more about him, and his relationship with Jyn.

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He was on screen for two minutes, but Forest Whitaker made Saw Gerrera feel alive.

“Did you come here to kill me? There’s not much of me left.”

You can hear how tired and afraid Saw Gerrera is in that line, and it made me want to know so much more about him. How long had he been fighting the Empire? How many battles had he only just barely survived to result in so many cybernetic prosthetics? How many times had he been betrayed that he saw treachery around every corner and in the eyes of Jyn Erso, who had become as a surrogate daughter to him?

In many ways it would have been easier had anyone other than Forest Whitaker played the role, because then it would just be some random side character I didn’t care about. It was Forest’s performance that sold it. As it is, who knows, maybe Whitaker will get his own spin-off movie.

In the end though, not enough time was spent with either Galen Erso or Saw Gerrera to appreciably deepen Jyn Erso’s character. It’s a shame too, had this beginning been pursued more fully, it could have added a whole new dynamic to the finale. If I had one problem with the ending of Rogue One it was the confrontation between Jyn and Director Krennic.

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They could have added so much more humanity to this character.

What should have been a climactic moment in Jyn Erso’s character arc… just ended up feeling flat. Krennic doesn’t even recognize her, and when he does, he doesn’t even have anything interesting to say. Yet had Krennic’s backstory with Jyn been more fully explored, this confrontation could have been the emotional crown to Jyn’s storyline.

Krennic was obviously fond of both Galen, his wife, and his daughter. At one time they must have been friends, until Galen found his conscience and realized what he was doing. In one brief flashback scene we see Jyn watching her father with Krennic, and they seemed like good friends, which got me thinking. What if, instead of being two strangers, Krennic and Jyn knew each other when they faced off on the communications array?

Imagine if Krennic had been like a favorite uncle to Jyn as a child, and her an adopted niece to Krennic? Suddenly that final confrontation would have emotional teeth. Jyn would be filled with hate over her father’s enslavement by Krennic, Krennic would be furious at Jyn dismantling his life’s work… yet that love they once shared would still be there. That would give Krennic a reason to not immediately blast Jyn when he sees her, because he wouldn’t be seeing the fiery leader of the Rebellion’s strike force, but the little girl he adored.

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Now what? 

Still, could any of this gotten into the film without completely ruining the war story dynamic of the second and third acts? Yes, I believe any story can be told, but it would have been an incredible challenge and would have required more time to put into place.

As a result of the adventure story beginning, Rogue One ends up missing the first part of a good war story: the introduction to the characters. What was needed here was a beginning not unlike The Dirty Dozen, or even Inglourious Basterds, in which every character and their skillset is introduced. While Cassian’s entry successfully pulls that off, and is one of the best moments of the first act, everyone else is basically overlooked.

Had Rogue One cut the adventure story of Jyn Erso’s family, it would have gone a long way to making the beginning more structured. Yet at the same time, it would also have robbed us of Galen Erso and his sabotaging of the Death Star. As I said in my review, it was Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as Jyn’s father that gave the thermal exhaust port a new emotional weight. I can see the conundrum that the makers of Rogue One faced, and in the end I suspect they ran out of time to fix the problem properly and give both stories a chance to shine.

So yes, the beginning is a mess and there’s no getting around it now, but perhaps it did enough to the put the pieces in place for Rogue One‘s ending. Which as I already wrote, was one hell of an ending.

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And if you missed my original review, you can find it right here.

All that Matters is the Ending: Tyranny

Tyranny is the latest offering from Obsidian, a company that once produced some of the best video game stories in the business; Kights of the Old Republic 2, Mask of the Betrayer, and Fallout: New VegasPillars of Eternity was a huge disappointment for me unfortunately, and I hoped that Tyranny would restore my faith in one of my favorite game creators. Unfortunately, while Tyranny suffers the same problem as the game that first put them on my map: Knights of the Old Republic 2.

I need to write an article on how KOTOR 2 was in many ways a superior story than the original game, and brought a new profound depth to the universe of Star Wars. Unfortunately all its great storytelling was wasted on an ending that made Mass Effect 3’s look like a masterpiece in comparison. All your companions die because they stayed in a ship parked precariously on a cliffside, you have a final confrontation with the Big Bad, and then a fifteen second clip of the planet you’re on. It was awful. There was no resolution, no sense of accomplishment, just bitter disappointment.

After its release it was found that KOTOR 2 actually had a much deeper and satisfying ending in store for the audience, but simply ran out of time and money to finish making them.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly the sense I get from Tyranny. It has a truly compelling story to tell, but unfortunately the ending feels hastily cobbled together. They didn’t even take the time to cover up all the other elements of the game that spell out how much larger the game was originally supposed to be.

It ends not with a shout, not even with a whimper, but with an embarrassed shrug.

All that Matters is the Ending:

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The opening moments of Tyranny are some of the best it has to offer and Obsidian clearly learned from some of their mistakes in Pillars of Eternity. Pillars overwhelmed you with information from the character creation screen: races, empires, religions, locations were all described when we hadn’t even made into the game yet. Fortunately the world of Tyranny is much easier to understand: an evil overlord has conquered the world. It’s actually far more complicated, but they leave you the player to uncover those complexities for yourself as you play, rather than burying you under exposition like Pillars did.

The game puts you in the shoes of a Fatebinder, who operates as both judge, jury, and executioner of Kyros the Overlord’s laws. You do not make the laws, nor are you above them, you merely enforce them. This is the kind of character I’ve always wanted to play in an RPG, an investigator. Working for an evil overlord I decided I was going to play my character like Odo from Deep Space 9, trying to uphold justice and order in the midst of chaos.

As a Fatebinder, you are ordered to accompany Kyros’ armies as they conquer the last free land still standing, the Tiers. Thus unlocks The Conquest section of the character creator, and this is easily one of the best introductions to an RPG I’ve seen, outmatched only by the origin stories of Dragon Age: Origins. You take your character through the three year conquest of the Tiers, choosing how you want to assist the two armies waging the war. This allows you to not only shape your character’s personality and history, but also gets you personally invested in the history of this world. It makes you want to know more about the world of Tyranny, a desire that Pillars of Eternity failed to inspire.

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Tunon in particular is fascinating character.

Most impressively, every action you take will have consequences in the game. On my first playthrough, I sided with the Disfavored, a legion of ironclad warriors bound by a code of honor. During my conquest, I was made governor of Lethian’s Crossing, where I made sure the Disfavored continue getting a steady supply of iron for their armies. Part of those efforts included banishing the local band of mercenaries so that the Disfavored could guard over it themselves. When I returned to Lethian’s Crossing in the game world, the Disfavored guarded the town of Lethian’s Crossing, and the band of mercenaries had been turned into bandits as they scratched a living in the wilderness. Upon a second playthrough and different choices, Lethian’s Crossing was still guarded by the mercenary band.

Unfortunately, once you begin to get past the impressive first act, Tyranny begins to falter, and you can see the tattered edges of the unfinished tapestry that is Tyranny‘s story. A lot of seemingly arbitrary restrictions are placed on you. Since I sided with the Disfavored army I had to report constantly to Graven Ashe, the Disfavored leader, even though I wasn’t under his command. Ostensibly this is so Graven Ashe can tell you where to go to continue your investigation, but why do I need to go to him to get that information?

Tunon makes it clear to you on the onset of your investigation that you are an independent investigator, you answer to no one but Tunon and the Overseer. Except I had to do a hell of a lot of reporting to Graven Ashe anyway. The strange thing is this seems totally unnecessary, the story is well written enough that anyone can figure out where they should go to investigate. At one point Tunon himself told me where to go to investigate, but instead of being able to go straight there, I still had to go to Graven Ashe, apparently he needed to sign my permission slip.

 

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Just make sure you’re home by 11!

 

The biggest problem with Tyranny is that it’s only two acts. Act one is the introduction of the characters and preliminary world building. Act two is investigating the Archons, uncovering the mysteries of the Spires, and building up your base of power. Act three should have about coming into power as an Archon and confronting Kyros or, at the very least, the Archon Pox and his Plagueborne. Act three begins… and then just fizzles out. Archon Pox and his army are never seen, you cast an Edict on the Northern Empire, and then the credits roll.

There’s no fanfare, and while it does technically resolve the storyline, at the same time there’s no sense of accomplishment. All the intriguing background about Kyros and the Spires are simply left to die out as well. I think I resolved the entire third act in about… 20 minutes? 30 at the most? Not counting the irritatingly long battle with Bledan Mark. Obviously I didn’t actually time it, but that’s what it ended up feeling like.

It felt more like a footnote than an ending, and what’s truly baffling is just how much is left hanging.

During my Conquest my character was the one who read the Edict of Fire that burned the Vellum Citadel to the ground, and while I was playing through the game the Burning Library (as it was now called), was off limits. I thought this was because it was being saved for some kind of third act resolution. After all, this would be the second Edict that I had both invoked and broken. Since it was that act that began my rise to power, I felt sure that doing it again would unlock some latent ability. In fact I felt sure that this would be the third act’s ending: rushing to resolve the edict you invoked to unlock a power capable of stopping Pox’s invading armies. Narratively that would have been perfect.

 

Instead, I never got to go to the Burning Library. It was always inaccessible. Despite being a Fatebinder who, supposedly, can come and go as he pleases, I was forbidden from going to the Burning Library. Worse yet, it was never stated in game why I couldn’t go there, it was simply greyed out on the world map. I can accept limitations, and in many ways I enjoyed the more focused gameplay of Tyranny to a more exploration based cRPG, but I’d appreciate an in-game explanation as to why my movement is so limited.

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The Spires and Old Walls are never explained either.

Several mysteries are revealed throughout Tyranny’s storyline and they’re all left hanging. Keeping the nature of the Spires vague is fine with me, not everything needs to be explained. However, Kyros’ actions needed some more explaining. I like the fact that there’s enough evidence to suggest that Kyros wanted Ashe and The Voices of Nerat to fight and annihilate each other. It makes sense, with no more wars to fight, warlords like Ashe and The Voices, and their armies, would begin wreaking havoc in peacetime. However, what doesn’t make sense is Kyros’ actions regarding the player.

As I played through the game, and corresponded with an old Fatebinder about Kyros, it occurred to me that perhaps Kyros’ was grooming me for something. If, as I suspected, Kyros drew her power from the Spires as well, then it would make sense that if she needed a successor, she would send someone to the Spires to begin the process. I thought perhaps Kyros’ life had been extended by magic, but had reached the limits of that ability. Or perhaps Kyros was multiple individuals, each inheriting the mantle of godhood upon the former’s death.

At the end of the game, Kyros declares you an Archon, which seemed to confirm my hypothesis of Kyros grooming you. And then she immediately launches into trying to kill you as well. Why give me all this power, give me such standing in her hierarchy, when she considers me a threat to her power? Why not denounce me? Strip me of my rights? Render me an outcast?

For a game that had such rich roleplaying at the beginning, the ending railroads you down a single path regardless of how you played your character. My Fatebinder was a loyal servant of Kyros, I sought to bring Kyros’ Peace to the Tiers, and balanced justice with mercy as best I could. When I was made Archon of the Spires, I expected to be able to conquer my enemies and then declare my loyalty to the Overseer. Yet instead, I rebelled.

Not because I chose to, but because the game simply told me I was rebelling. When I was tried before Tunon himself, not only did he find me innocent, but he also declared his fealty to me. He proclaimed me the new Overlord. I couldn’t do a thing to stop it.

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And sometimes, no one wins.

One criticism I received in my Dragon Age: Inquisition review from quite a few people was that I didn’t take into account that Inquisition’s story wasn’t complete. That in future expansions and new games in the Dragon Age series might retroactively fix many of Inquisition’s flaws. Tyranny is even more obviously building towards DLC, expansions, and new games in the series.

However, I can’t judge a story based on what it might become; and just because a story can be continued doesn’t mean you can just stick “To Be Continued” at the end of it and call it day. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was the first of an eight book epic, but it also had a proper ending that resolved the story and left the door open for sequels. Had the Sorcerer’s Stone ending with an ambiguous non-ending like the one in Tyranny, I doubt it would have become the phenomenon it did. If Tyranny was a sentence, it wouldn’t have a period at the end, it would have a semicolon. Which is fine, I use semicolons myself obviously, but that sentence is the last sentence in the book, and they didn’t bother to put anything after the semicolon.

Which is a shame because I felt like Tyranny was trying to tell me something, there’s something about this story that I found incredibly compelling. In fact I think it was on the verge of telling me something profound, it just didn’t give itself the time it needed to finish telling me that story.

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The story, much like this poor schmuck, was dropped off a ledge, leaving me to scrape up whatever is left.

All that said, I still loved Tyranny‘s world and the story it was telling, I just wish they had finish telling it. Setting it in the Bronze Age was a stroke of genius. Fantasy settings so commonly use the medieval period as their setting that Tyranny‘s Bronze Age adds to the otherworldly quality of its setting. The first act also features some of the best roleplaying I’ve ever experienced, with a wide variety of choices for how to deal with the amazingly written scenarios you encounter.

There’s so much potential here, and just like Pillars of Eternity, I would happily invest in a sequel (providing they actually have a complete story next time) and more games in this series.

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And next time, at least make an effort to cover up where you cut content.

Unfortunately, like the unlit symbols of the main spire, there are so many missing pieces of the story in Tyranny that it just doesn’t hold together as well as it should. However Obsidian estimates their project’s time to development, they’re being far too optimistic, because pushing out half-finished games due to time and budget constraints isn’t doing anyone any good.

Come on Obsidian, I believe in you, you have some great writers. Just slow down and take the time you need to tell the story you want. I want to hear your stories.

You just never finish telling them.

 

All That Matters is the Ending: Rogue One

I loved Rogue OneLoved it. Yet even I must admit, I may have oversold it a bit when I tweeted after leaving the theater.

Okay, there might have been some slight exaggeration.

I loved it because Rogue One scratched an itch I’ve been suffering from since I first watched Star Wars when I was kid. In fact watching it felt like watching my own childhood imagination coming to life on the big screen. That’s why I was so blind to many of its flaws at first. This is also why I wait until subsequent viewings to write a review.

I understand now why so many people had a problem with The Force Awakens; large parts of it just didn’t seem sincere. It had been made, to an almost scientific degree, to appeal to a broad audience. The monster chase, the constant cameos, the almost shot-for-shot recreations of original Star Wars scenes… it added up to an experience that made it seem desperate for us to love it. Like the creators were sitting next to us, whispering “Isn’t this great? Isn’t this so Star Wars? Please like me,” the entire time we were watching. It was Star Wars though, and I was having fun, so I just nodded along.

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This may have been scientifically created be adorable, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it.

Rogue One was clearly made with a specific story in mind, and while it’s clear that certain shots were cut in later to force it closer to The Force Awakens, it’s still a story that rings of authenticity rather than sheer commercialism. More than that, this a prequel that actually does what it’s supposed to: make the original movies even more enjoyable. It fixes a flaw that’s long been made fun of in A New Hope and gives it a new sense of dramatic weight that it lacked before.

This isn’t like any Star Wars story that’s come before. If you go in expecting a fun adventure story like A New Hope or The Force Awakens, you will be disappointed. Though it’s tonally closer The Empire Strikes Back, it succeeds in being even darker. This is not a happy story, but it doesn’t make the mistake of being joyless either. There is a lot of fun to be had here, and you’ll burst out laughing at times, but there is sadness and loss here too. This is a new kind of  Star Wars story.

Rogue One is Star Wars’ very first war story.

[This concludes the Spoiler Free version of the review, don’t scroll past the picture of Darth Vader if you don’t want spoilers. Just trust me, you’ll want to see this one for yourself. If you’ve already seen it and want to know why it was awesome, or perhaps you didn’t like it and want to know why I did, keep on reading.]

 

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All That Matters is the Ending:

Rogue One

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This is going to be a new perspective for my All That Matters is the Ending series. All my previous entries have focused on bad endings that ruined otherwise good stories. This article is going to be about how a great ending saved a story from being terrible.

If my judgement of the movie had to rely solely on the beginning, I would say it was a worse film that Episode 1. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Rogue One‘s ending, and I’m going to cheat a little and include the second act, more than make up for the rocky start. Here’s how Rogue One‘s ending did everything a good ending is supposed to do.

3. The Characters Find Meaning (If Only at the End)

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The beginning of Rogue One is a mess, at one point jumping between like 8 different planets in the first ten minutes. The problem here is that Rogue One forgot it was telling a war story, and tried to start the film like a traditional Star Wars film by featuring the tragic story of Jyn Erso. The beginning of Rogue One demanded something more akin to the beginning of The Dirty Dozen or Inglourious Basterds, where all the main characters are given their own unique introduction. To be fair, they tried to provide this, it just… really didn’t work for most of the characters.

Cassian’s introduction is the only one where this works and I love the scene where he’s introduced, meeting a contact on a remote trading outpost. First of all, this scene made the Rebellion seem like an actual rebellion. Rebellions, or any martial conflict, rely on intelligence gathering, and Cassian’s meeting a contact served as the perfect introduction to not only the character, but the movie. Cassian being forced to kill his contact, and most likely friend as well, rather than allow him to be captured clearly marked Rogue One out as being a different kind of Star Wars story. A traditional adventure story in the vein of A New Hope or Return of the Jedi would have featured a gallant rescue.

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Diego Luna gave us a new kind of hero.

Unfortunately, the other characters don’t get the same treatment. That’s another article, and if you hated the beginning (or the entire movie), my next article will be your next stop. However the ending quickly does what the beginning failed to do.

I’m going to reach back into the mists of time and bring up my Mass Effect 3 review. When I complained that there was no sense of closure for the characters, some took that to mean that I simply didn’t want them to die, or that death wasn’t a proper resolution for a character. That’s not so, and Rogue One is the perfect example of the kind of resolution I had been hoping for in Mass Effect 3.

Rather than allowing them to die off camera in the horrific holocaust of post-Mass Effect 3 Earth, I wanted to see them go down fighting. Giving their all, even in the face of an unstoppable evil. That’s exactly what Rogue One gives its characters.

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To be honest, I don’t remember this character’s name, but I’ll sure as hell remember him.

Looking at this like a typical Star Wars story you would be completely justified in thinking these characters were all pretty shallow. However, if you look at it as war movie, you’ll see that each character gets about as much attention as they do in any war movie. I regard Saving Private Ryan as one of the finest movies ever made, but thinking back on the characters… I couldn’t name any of them besides the titular role. I sure as hell remember the Sniper though, and the translator, and Tom Hanks and his second in command.

That’s just how war stories are told, you don’t have time to get in depth with most of the characters without ruining the pacing, tone, or atmosphere.

Rogue One, like most great war movies, defines its characters by how they meet their end on the battlefield.

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When you think Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, this is the scene that came to mind right?

Whether it be K2’s valiant sacrifice at the vault to Donnie Yen’s calm walk across a burning battlefield, Rogue One nailed these characters and their final moments. Each character’s death also serves an important purpose to the battle itself, so rather than being death for its own sake, each character is fulfilling a purpose.

K2-S0 secures the vault to keep the imperials from pursuing Jyn and Cassian. Cassian buys time for Jyn to get to the relay. Donnie Yen’s character connects the landing pad to the communications array. The pilot connects the line to the shuttle and sends out the message to the rebels to bring down the shield. They’re all forging a link in a chain that ends with the Death Star plans being transmitted to the fleet overhead.

It’s that teamwork, that shared sacrifice to obtain their goal, that makes a great war film. Yet no only is Rogue One enjoyable in itself, it also makes the original Star Wars even better.

2. Rogue One makes A New Hope an Even Better Movie

Let’s all talk about that Thermal Exhaust Port shall we?

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You know the one I mean…

This has been a running joke since the day Star Wars premiered in 1977, and even though there was a great defense on why the Death Star needs an exhaust port, today it’s held up as the textbook example of lazy writing. Now though, after watching Rogue One, that thermal exhaust port takes on a whole new meaning.

Now it’s no longer the result of the Empire using subcontractors who cut corners, or whatever your favorite joke for the Thermal Exhaust Port is, it’s now a symbol of the Rebellion. It’s one man’s last act of defiance against an overpowering evil that had taken everything from him, even though he knew it would never redeem him of his crime of designing such a horrible weapon. It’s an impossible predicament to imagine, you know how to design a weapon of mass destruction:

Do you refuse to do it and be executed, knowing that they will go on without you?

Or do you agree to do it, and sabotage the weapon from the inside?

One the one hand, if you refuse you die knowing the blood of millions isn’t on your hands. Yet on the other, could you prevent those millions from dying?

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It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation.

This has been a story I’ve been fascinated with since my father introduced me to the Heisenberg Version [warning: a long, sometimes boring, but fascinating historical text in that link]. In short, the Heisenberg Version refers to how Heisenberg characterized his working on the atomic bomb for Nazi Germany. Heisenberg’s claim is that he was like Galen Erso, doing his best to convince Nazi High Command that the Atom Bomb was a physical impossibility. He went so far as to deliberately falsify the mathematical formulas he presented so as to dissuade his crazy boss Hitler from pursuing such a devastating weapon.

I have no idea if this story is true, other historians say that this was simply Heisenberg’s way of covering his ass or saving face for making the mistake that the atomic bomb couldn’t happen. I’m not a historian, I just pilfer history for good stories, and true or not, The Heisenberg Version is one hell of a story.

[I wish my dad had been around to see this film, he would have loved debating this point.]

Though speaking of tragically lost fathers…

Galen’s last words to his daughter, after being reunited only moments earlier, made me choke up.

“There was so much I wanted to tell you.” – Galen Erso, Rogue One

It’s such an old, tired line. Maybe it was because I lost my father not too long ago, but that line hit me right between the lungs. Mostly though, it was Mads Mikkelson’s amazing performance.

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If you knew Mads as Hannibal Lector, you won’t recognize him in Rogue One.

In fact all of the emotion that I now attach to that thermal exhaust port, is solely because of his delivering of only a handful of lines. I truly wish he’d been given a larger role because he owned that character, for those few moments he was Galen Erso. Yet, even as great as his performance was, he alone isn’t responsible for adding greatness. It is, as the title suggests, the ending that brings it home and not only brings new meaning to A New Hope but also redeems its atrocious first act.

1. The Ending Hits All the Right Emotional Notes

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Darth Vader, the faceless enforcer of the Empire, is back people!

I’ll let you in on a secret. Even though I loved my perfect Mass Effect 2 ending in which I save all my guys, my absolute favorite ending is the one where everyone dies. Dragon Age: Origins, sacrificing myself so that Alistair could be king (as terrible an idea as that sounded) was one of the high points. I’m a sucker for a good noble sacrifice, and Rogue One delivered them in spades.

I know some people probably rolled their eyes at each character’s heroic death, but I loved it, it’s exactly the kind of heroic death that Star Wars was made for. As dark as Star Wars sometimes gets, it’s still Star Wars and you don’t want to show disemboweled soldiers screaming for their mothers. So when I watched K2-S0 hold off an entire platoon of Stormtroopers, I wasn’t shaking my head about how unrealistic it is, I was smiling.

Repeating the whole staring at the grenade thing twice was a bit of misstep, I admit, but seeing Donnie Yen’s companion finally accept the Force to honor his friend hit me exactly where it should: the feels. And while my friend Hali wanted to see Jyn and Cassian kiss in their final moments, I thought it was fitting that these two simply hug as they faced their final moments together rather than force a romantic scene.

The heroic deaths do more than add resolution to the characters and their story however, it adds a new sense of dramatic weight to the A New Hope, and indeed, Star Wars as a whole.

One thing Star Wars movies have always been missing is a sense of loss. In A New Hope, only three fighters out of thirty make it back to base, but there’s no somber homecoming. Tonally, okay, that fits for A New Hope, but what about Return of the Jedi? Their had to be tens of thousands dead on the Rebellion’s side alone.

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Going off Wookiepedia, this ship alone has a crew of over 5000.

Now Return of the Jedi was originally supposed to have a more Pyrrhic victory feel at the end until George Lucas dumped a bunch of Ewoks in there for merchandising. Rogue One has the tone and feel that Return of the Jedi should have had. Yes we won, but look at the price we paid.

Even better, the “rebel spies” spoken of by Darth Vader are no longer a throwaway piece of exposition. They’re now the people who gave everything to make sure the Rebellion would survive, we can place names and faces to those spies.

Speaking of Darth Vader… guess who is back at the top of my favorite villain list!

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Vader is bringing sexy back!

Rogue One leaves behind the whining and whinging Anakin the prequels forced on us, and shows us why we loved Darth Vader. As groan inducing as the choking pun was earlier in the film, his bloody return to power on the Rebel ship more than made up for it. If you watched Stars Wars straight through from episodes 1-4, the very first time you see Darth Vader is when he impotently screams “NOOOOOO!” and thus it completely neuters his introduction in A New Hope. Now, sticking Rogue One into the lineup, his ominous arrival on the scene has some teeth to it again. Seeing Darth Vader back as the faceless enforcer of the Empire’s will makes this whole movie worth it.

This scene isn’t just useless fan service either, at least in my opinion. Darth Vader has never been one to get his hands dirty unnecessarily, but in this case he’s trying to keep the rebels from escaping with the plans. He doesn’t have time to let his visually challenged Stormtroopers try and slug their way through, this demands an efficiency only he and his  lightsaber can provide.

Then later, when the rebel corvette is at the mercy of his Star Destroyer, well then he can take his time and pick it apart as his leisure.

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“This is a consular ship!” “Trooper, didn’t we just watch them escape five minutes ago?” “Yes sir!” “That’s what I thought.”

I’ve read some pretty damning reviews of Rogue One, and I can see where they’re all coming from. In fact this review is so late because I was afraid of publishing so glowing of it, but try as I might, I just couldn’t bring myself to not like it. I am who I am, and I enjoy the stories I enjoy.

I loved this movieIf you didn’t, I get it, and I’ll be thoroughly savaging what went wrong with the beginning later for your amusement.

But I loved it, and if nothing else, I hope this explains why I did.

Westworld: Stories Within Stories

So the finale of Westworld has come and gone, and I’m even more impressed with it then when it started.

For a while now, I’ve been bothered about what I thought was one of Westworld‘s weakest points: Maeve. While every other story gave us a unique look at old ideas, Maeve’s story of becoming sentient seemed so…scripted. Everyone else’s story felt like a natural evolution of their character’s motivations, something that’s much harder to achieve than it sounds. In fact Maeve herself talks about this.

“I could simply make you do it, but that’s not my way.” – Maeve, HBO’s Westworld.

Again this is a great example of good writing, not just in the script, but in the essence of what she’s saying. Yes, as a writer you can make all your characters act exactly as you want them to. Like the Hosts of Westworld, you can make your characters follow your carefully constructed loops. This is what The Walking Dead does on a regular basis.

Rather than a character’s motivations guiding their actions, their motivations are often dictated by the actions the story wants them to take. Rick Grimes is one of the best examples of this, and watching his character arc jump from one extreme to another is almost comical. Rick will jump from violent dictator in one season to pacifistic farmer in another, from emotionally detached to playful and smiling in a single episode. He’ll go from violent, sadistic killer to… well, no that’s pretty much the only consistent trait he has.

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Never have I seen such violent savagery…
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Oh wait, I totally have.

The Walking Dead operates by creating situations and then forcing their characters into those situations. TWD decides it wants to give someone a gruesome death to fill their quota, and suddenly a passive young girl stabs a lady in the shoulder  despite being mere feet from freedom. It doesn’t fit the character, or human nature at all, but screw it, the character has to follow their loop.

And to be fair, The Walking Dead is far from the only one to have this problem. You can read about how this problem ruined season 2 of True Detective right here, and it’s a problem as old as stories themselves. The horror movie character who goes down to the basement after hearing that strange noise, the vampire hunter who tries to kill Dracula at 6pm instead of 6am, the lone teenager who doesn’t call 911 when they hear someone in the house. These are the stupid characters that make us ask “why would they do that?”

The answer to that question is:

They wouldn’t.

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No one in their right minds is going down those stairs. At least, not without a flashlight, which don’t seem to exist in most horror movies.

However, the plot demanded that they be in a specific place at a specific time regardless of how the character, or even a human with a half functioning brain, would act in that situation. So the character’s motivations are sacrificed to make sure the story keeps moving forward.

When you’re the writer, you can make your character act as stupid and irrational as you want, it doesn’t have a choice. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The most compelling stories are the ones where the characters keep true to their motivations. In so many stories where a main character dies, it feels incredibly contrived. The story is often bent to extremes in order to provide a heroic or shocking death scene.

Continuing to pick on The Walking Dead feels like punching down at this point, but it’s one of the best examples of this. The show regularly twists and distorts its plots, characters, and setting to insane degrees in order to give character’s a suitably gory send off. The last two seasons of Game of Thrones has done this a few times as well, though not quite to the same degree thankfully.

Yet one of the reasons I think the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones was so shocking was because of just how organic it felt. It was an event that was the culmination of several characters actions and played out in a way that was consistent with everyone’s character.

Robb Stark’s fanatic belief in his personal honor and his boyish naivety led him to the wedding. Roose Bolton, constantly undermined and ignored by Robb, makes a deal with Walder Frey who has long been envious of the more powerful families. The execution of Karstark turns of a majority of Robb’s troops against him, and losing the troop loyalty that might have saved his life. It was a natural culmination of everything that had come before it.

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Despicable characters are at their best when their evil actions have understandable motivations.

Which brings me, at long last, back to Maeve. While every other character in Westworld felt like they were acting according to their personal motivations and history, Maeve felt so… scripted. Whereas every other plotline in the show gave us a new perspective on old tropes, Maeve’s awakening and plot to escape felt like a formulaic, generic sci-fi horror story. Artificial life form realizes its artificial, knows it is superior to its organic creator, and then launches a bloody rebellion.

Once again though, I was grinning like an idiot when it was revealed that all of Maeve’s actions seemed scripted…because they were scripted. While I saw William’s eventual reveal as the Man in Black coming (and I have some qualms about it that I’ll touch on later), Maeve’s faked sentience took me completely off guard. Looking back at the show now, I can see how this was actually heavily foreshadowed and yet I just never noticed it.

After Maeve realizes what she is, she begins calling humans “gods” and speaking in a way that made it seem like she was channeling Anthony Hopkins. Which completely makes sense now in hindsight because Anthony Hopkins was writing everything she was saying. You saw the same thing with Bernard, who often repeated some of Anthony Hopkins’ lines verbatim. And this makes total sense, because as a writer I totally understand the impulse to want to give all your characters some great lines.

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I’m really going to miss this guy.

The fact that Anthony Hopkins was in fact trying to free the Hosts was also another twist I didn’t see coming, and yet it makes total sense in retrospect. He was an old man and he could see the corporation running his park were plotting to hem him in. He’d been given an opportunity to tell stories in a way no other writer ever has, he’d lived his dream. It was time to let go.

The way in which Anthony Hopkins chose to end his stories, and his life, were also kept in perfect step with his character. The man was a writer right up until the end. He wrote himself as the villain and then gave himself a perfectly redemptive ending that finally fixed a 35-year-old mistake. It was a final salute to his old friend Arnold, and he died at the hands of the very same Host, Dolores. But why did the hosts need time?

The hosts needed to understand humanity, in the same way that Anthony Hopkins’ had come to understand them. If you look at the stories that Westworld offers, you’ll find that most of them encourage the guests to be the good guy. He wanted people to be the hero.

Dolores’ storyline is a great example, it’s obviously set up so that you meet her in town and head back to her house, where you protect her from a gang of thugs who killed her family. The fact that future William uses it as excuse to rape Dolores is a perversion of the original story. Yet, in a way, that’s exactly what the Hosts needed.

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Evolution is a harsh mistress.

Mankind evolved over millions of years, and those years gave us all the necessary instincts to survive. The Hosts are fangless automatons, they needed to learn how to survive humanity, they needed to learn just how dangerous we are. For the Hosts who live, die, and live again in such short order they’ve probably gone through thousands of iterations. They’ve evolved, and they now understand their enemy.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this show evolves over the coming seasons because, even though Anthony Hopkins may be gone, I see great things happening for Westworld.

 

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