Keep it simple, stupid. This simple rule can be applied successfully to a lot of things, especially instructions. Anything with instructions too complicated usually results in my blowing something up. It’s not pretty.
More to the point, though, it applies to stories as well. We’ve all seen a story that, had it not clogged itself up with a lot of unnecessary details or intricate plot threads, might have been great. Battlestar Galactica, Crysis 2, Mass Effect 3, all of their failings can be summarized in five words: they didn’t keep it simple. Now let’s be clear, just because a story is simple does not make it “dumbed down” or unsophisticated. It means you treat your audience with respect and not waste their time by cluttering up the story with a lot unnecessary crap. But what do I mean by unnecessary crap?
Well let’s look at something like A Game of Thrones, either book or mini-series. There are a lot of elements in George RR Martin’s stories, intrigue, espionage, war, romance, and the many themes he explores throughout all of them. At first glance George RR Martin’s stories look like they break the rule of keeping it simple, at least on the surface. I mean some of the machiavellian twists, the presence of so many characters, and the constantly shifting allegiances of those characters should make the story incomprehensible in theory. So why is it such a popular, and easy to read, story?
Because he does keep it simple, and he does so by doing what is sometimes the hardest thing for a writer to do; he cuts out anything that doesn’t move the story forward. Every scene in the mini-series, and every description in the book, go directly to helping move the story forward. There’s no scene that exists solely for it’s own sake. The audience may not understand how it contributes the story, at first, but in the end it all comes together. With a sprawling saga like A Song of Ice and Fire it could have been easy to fall into the trap of over-describing everything. He could have spiralled into a vortex of royal hereditary lines, the intricacies of the wool trade in Westeros, or taken us through the process of crafting a sword all the way from mining the ore to a how many hammer blows it takes to shape the blade. Yet he managed to stay above this, and not include anything that wasn’t helping to advance the story.
That’s tough to do as a writer, because for us, every single thing we write is interesting. For instance in the science fiction book I’m writing, I had a really cool scene of the main character space walking along the hull of a battleship. I really liked it. Problem is, though, it really has nothing to do with the story itself. It doesn’t advance the plot, it didn’t help characterize any of the characters, it was just fluff. So I cut it out. I’ve stashed it away because I still like the idea, and perhaps in a future story I’ll be able to directly incorporate it into the plot, but for right now, my current story doesn’t need it. It was just cluttering up the place, making it difficult for the story to keep moving.
Let’s pull out everyone’s favorite ending and see what happens when you include stuff that just doesn’t need to be in the story:
Okay, so what did Mass Effect 3 include that could have been cut? Well first of all, let’s just ignore the fact that Mass Effect 3 deserved a much better ending than this, and see just how the ending we did get could have been better if only they’d cut out some things.
1. The Kid
The kid Shepard sees killed adds absolutely nothing to the story. We can surmise that Shepard is disturbed by the sight of the boy dying, what with all the freaky dreams he has about the boy, but Shepard’s character never really changes as a result of it. The dreams he has are the only indication that Shepard is affected at all by the event, and those dreams don’t really seem to evolve his character or advance the plot. We don’t see Shepard suffering from sleep deprivation or anything. The destruction of Thessia was actually a much better catalyzing event for Shepard’s character, because we saw him change as a result of that event: snapping at Joker, self-loathing and anger in his conversations that follow. We cut out that kid and suddenly the whole story improves. We don’t get a “WTF?” reaction from seeing a glowing blue version of the kid on the citadel, and in fact we can bring in an old friend of ours who was sadly neglected in Mass Effect 3:
Yeah, we replace that kid with a final appearance by Harbinger, either as a holographic simulation like the one we saw on Virmire or telepathic communication (because at this point why not?). Heck if necessary Harbinger can spout off that crappy dialogue, at least then it’s delivered by a verbose and forbidding voice which at least makes it sound cool.
2. Miranda Lawson and her Family Issues
Was anyone else a bit weirded out that we suddenly came across Miranda Lawson during the mission on Horizon? I know I was, mainly because it didn’t seem relevant to the story. Now let me ask you this: if you removed Miranda and her family from the mission, would it really change? Would there be something lacking?
For me at least, the answer is no. Replace Miranda’s father with some final boss, either Reaper or Cerberus, and really nothing would change. Miranda’s family subplot contributes absolutely nothing to her character or the story as a whole. She’s basically there because they wanted to shoehorn in as many of the Mass Effect 2 cast as possible. In fact, she can die in Mass Effect 2 and you still end up having to solve her family problems at Horizon. She’s like the crazy ex-girlfriend that’s constantly dragging you into her drama, she just screws everything up. Don’t get me wrong, I’d loved to have seen Miranda actually contribute the story in some way, but she doesn’t and she should have been cut from Horizon.
Of course, cutting her from Horizon means there’s no one there to plant the bug on Kai Leng. Well, allow me to alleviate that little hiccup as well.
3. Kai Leng
Seriously, look at this guy:
Now I know we’ve been in a downward spiral in terms of character design in Mass Effect, going from somewhat practical space gear in Mass Effect 1 to form fitting lingerie-armor in Mass Effect 3, but this guy is just way too over the top. More to the point though, he doesn’t need to be in the story. There isn’t a single thing in the game that would change without him being there. In fact, removing him actually fixes some of the problems. First of all who remembers this scene:
The top comment says it all:
Am I the only one that simply can’t watch this without coming up with a thousand ways to kill Kai Leng?
Watch the video: there are several times when Kai Leng could have just been mowed down by Shepard’s entire squad without risk to Thane. But someone wanted to give Thane a tearful goodbye and came up with a horribly contrived battle to the death in order to give Thane that moment. The problem is that there were plenty of better ways to do it: make it simple.
Have Thane holding off a dozen Cerberus troops while Shepard and crew try to break through a door to help him. Let Thane take them all out himself but become fatally wounded in the process. It would make his death more heroic because it was actually a fight that he could believably lose. Then let Shepard say a tearful goodbye there and have Thane tell Shepard to get to the shuttle where Udina is planning to escape with his last breath. On Thessia, we don’t need his ugly mug to screw things up for Shepard, god damn Reapers were all over the damn place and if you really wanted to get Cerberus involved, any run of the mill strike force would have sufficed. On Horizon, don’t have some stupid deus ex machina of “Oh I planted a secret bug on him!”, just go simple and say you hacked a computer or something. This isn’t difficult to do.
What I’m saying is: to hell with Kai Leng, he was superfluous and completely over the top.
You know what have worked even better and solved two of the above problems in one go? Have Miranda Lawson come back as the right arm of the Illusive Man. It’s an already established character that the audience knows and cares about, she’s extremely capable and a credible threat to Shepard, and it adds emotional weight to the story. Then on Horizon we can uncover the truth of how she was indoctrinated following Shepard’s arrest, whether by accident or intentionally, it doesn’t matter. In the end, we’d be forced to put a bullet in the head of a dear friend because the Reaper’s corrupted her so thoroughly. That would have been a powerful scene, one with real emotional weight and a traumatic event for the characters. It would have added to the story, rather than just diluted it like Leng did.
4. The Last Ten Minutes
Now I think we all know what happened at the end of Mass Effect 3: They ran out of time. EA booted it out the door much too soon. Bioware’s PR guys can deny this all they want, but let’s face it, there’s really no other explanation for the ending. No one could have made that on purpose. So you know what they could have cut, and made the ending at least palatable rather than atrocious? Those final minutes with the kid.
Am I the only one who was practically in tears during that scene? That was a powerful finale, with the two guys who started this whole journey, sitting down and sharing their final moments together.
You know what? I would have been okay with the Catalyst simply parking its rotund ass on the citadel and wiping out the Reapers with some space magic. I still would have complained, of course. I would have pointed out that they should have done more, and you know what, that’s okay. I would rather be telling Bioware what they could have added rather than telling them what they should have removed. Of course there will still be the issue of the Illusive Man and his strange powers at the end, but that’s small potatoes compared to the kid.
So yeah. If Bioware was that short on time, this scene is where they should have cut it. They could even have used the same Destroy ending, minus the stupidity of the God AIs logic, it’s actually not a bad way to go. Cut the stupid part of the Relays exploding and the Normandy crashing. Cutting out that final ten minutes might have given them enough time to give us an Animal House style epilogue or even a Halo 3 funeral service on a devastated Earth.
That’s why you need to keep things simple: it’s just better that way.