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
“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 Mendoesn’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.
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.
You know who else had an emotionally distant father who didn’t know how express his feelings?
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.
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.
Mass Effect Andromeda is actually entirely written and animated by aliens that don't understand humanity. In that sense, it's immersive.
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.
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:
He’s an effective warrior, as evidenced by throwing a wraith through what I imagine is not ordinary glass.
He enjoys battle, relishes in it, perhaps even driven by it.
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.
“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:
He’s a warrior confident in his abilities and has no problem killing.
Though he’s comfortable killing, he takes no pleasure in it unless he has a personal motive. Otherwise, it’s just business.
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.
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.
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.
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.
True Detective’s second season finally came to an end on Sunday, brutally killing not only several characters but also any hope we had that the show would somehow redeem itself in the finale. While I didn’t quite get the transcendental experience others seemed to get watching the original season of True Detective, I still thought it was a great show with some amazing performances by McConaughey and Harrelson. So what the hell went wrong with this season?
Well let me lay out for you the mistakes that made this season of True Detective one of the most bizarre experiences in recent memory.
[Obviously spoilers are to follow, but quite frankly if you haven’t seen it, you might save yourself 8.5 hours of your time and just read this review instead.]
4. The Dialogue Was Awful
That up there is the closed captioning for the finale of Season 2, I turned it on specifically to make sure I was hearing what I thought I heard. Those words are spoken by Generic Russian Mob Boss #3209, A.K.A. Ossip, as Frank and Velcoro sneak up on cash exchange between Catalast [that’s not a typo by the way, that’s how it was actually spelled in the show] and the Russians, and it serves as a perfect example of how messed up the dialogue is.
What does that sentence even mean? Everything you start is unfinished, that’s why you’re starting it. The strange dialogue of season two was both a blatant attempt to recapture the magic of Rust’s poetic philosophizing and a great demonstration of how the show misunderstood its own popularity. There were several reasons why Rust’s dialogue worked in the first season, reasons that are completely absent from this season.
First of all, the dialogue was appropriate to Rust’s character, he was the perpetual outsider. The pariah who had trouble connecting with people on even the most basic level. That’s why he spoke the way he did, why he waxed philosophical at every opportunity, because it was representative of his inability to communicate with other people. To put it simply, Rust earned the right to speak like he did because it was a core part of his character.
The second reason Rust’s dialogue worked was that it was counterbalanced by Hart’s dialogue. Whenever Rust would get particularly insufferable in his nihilistic preaching, Hart would jump in with a well-timed “shut the fuck up.” Hart grounded the dialogue by not taking what Rust was saying seriously. Rust was using big words and complicated philosophies to cover the fact that he has utterly miserable and pretending that misery made him special.
And the most important reason that Rust’s dialogue worked was this:
Rust was the only one who spoke like that.
Everyone else in the first season of True Detective spoke like a normal human being, with the exception of The Yellow King, who was the foil of Rust’s character. The Yellow King was basically the Anti-Rust, an insufferable philosopher driven by faith rather than nihilism. So again, both their respective dialogues made sense in context.
In this season of True Detective, everyone is now talking like Rust and the people listening to it are taking it dead seriously, despite the fact this season features some of the goofiest lines ever spoken in a crime drama. I do not know how Vince Vaughn said “blue-balls of the heart” with a straight fucking face, but he deserves some kind of award for that. It’s sad that Vince Vaughn got saddled with a disproportionate amount of strange dialogue, because his character is the last person who should be speaking like that. Frank is a gangster who runs a bunch of casinos and whose primary duties are interacting with other people, and getting them to give him their money. He’s a people person, a negotiator. He’s not a loner or a reader of philosophy, there’s not a single thing about this character that justifies him talking like this:
Look at that fucking sentence up there. Herman Melville would look at that sentence and say, “Dude, no. Just no.” Even the Borg speak more organically than that. Was McConaughey adlibbing all his lines last season or did True Detective simply fire the editor in charge of proofreading this crap?
Whatever the case, the only time anyone spoke like a normal human being was when the characters sat down to spew out expository dialogue in a futile attempt to help the audience make heads or tails of the plot…
3. The Plot Was Buried in Subplots
The main plot revolved around the blue diamonds stolen by corrupt cops in 1992, in which the jewelers were brutally executed during the heist. The orphans of those jewelers then kidnapped Caspere some twenty-odd years later, originally planning to interrogate him and find out who else was responsible, before the crazy brother ended up killing him in a fit of rage.
This is not a complicated plot. Any other police procedural would have been able to tell this story in a 42 minute episode. So why the hell did we all spend two months in a near constant state of confusion over what the fuck was happening in this show?
Well because the plot so was simple that an episode of Castle could have covered it, True Detective season 2 needed something else to make it interesting. There were several ways to do this:
A) They could have setup some character-driven subplots, a la the first season’s subplot about Hart’s constant infidelity and the tense relationship between Hart and Rust.
B) Solve the main mystery quickly, but that in turn leads to the uncovering of the larger criminal conspiracy at work in Vinci, and the detectives have to protect the former orphans while collecting evidence about the conspiracy.
C) Create a few carefully crafted subplots and use them to spice up the main storyline. :
D) Take the plot of every noir crime story ever made, make them their own dedicated subplots, and throw them all into a big bowl. Mix until plot is totally incomprehensible.
Unfortunately for us all, they chose D.
The largest and most pointless subplot was the Railway Corridor, which ended up taking approximately all of the show’s running time. Seriously, more time and effort was spent trying to uncover the mysteries of this stupid land deal than was spent on telling the actual story of the show. The worst part is that the Railway Corridor was only ever tangentially connected with the main story, the corrupt cops were hoping to use their share of the diamond heist to buy their way into the land deal. If Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh stuck with actually investigating the diamond heist, instead of wasting their time looking into the land deal, they probably would have all lived happily ever after.
If the story had stuck to telling us about the diamond heist and then led us into the deeper conspiracy surrounding the rail corridor, then yes, this could have worked. But instead of doing that, True Detective apparently got bored and wandered off to tell us a dozen different stories all happening at the same time.
We had a bunch of pointless scenes with Frank attempting to retain control of his clubs, even though roughly 100% of the audience didn’t have a single fuck to give about the intricacies of Frank’s operations. We even got a pointless fist fight between Frank and a fat dude with gold teeth, for reasons I still don’t understand.
We had even more scenes with Frank trying to have a baby with his wife and complaining about how hard his life as an orphan was.
Bezzerides took more than one trip to see her father, who knew some of the older conspirators in passing but the connection is ultimately meaningless.
Essentially 99% of the subplots in this season were pointless. Not only did they not advance the story, they actively held it back. The Russian mobster taking over the underworld? Pointless. He shows up three or four times, vaguely threatens Frank and then promptly dies at the end.
The strange Mexican duo that looked like they stepped out of the 80’s? Nothing more than ethnic Deus Ex Machinas to make sure Frank died tragically. They literally only show up to advance the story (helping Frank find the Mexican prostitute), throw up obstacles (then killing the Mexican prostitute), and then putting the main character in arbitrary danger. Their presence was never explained.
Then there was the Black Mountain security company, which was alluded to throughout the season but ultimately contributed nothing but a couple of goons for the main characters to shoot at.
There was also a really strange, creepy fixation on the character’s sex lives. I understand the main theme of this season was sex (it wasn’t exactly subtle about it), but the show also doesn’t go anywhere with this. The first time we meet Bezzerides she’s having an argument with her boyfriend over her BDSM fetish, but the scene is ultimately irrelevant to the story. In fact the BDSM thing is never mentioned again.
So instead of using this scene to give us a glimpse at her character, the whole scene just comes across as weirdly voyeuristic. The only point of this glimpse at her collection of paddles and straps is to titillate the audience. It did nothing to characterize her to the audience.
In fact there was very little characterization at all because…
2. The Characters Were Ignored
The main appeal of True Detective was that it was essentially an extended buddy-cop movie where the buddies actually kind of hate each other, but not really, it’s just complicated. The incredible performances of Harrelson and McConaughey combined with the unique narrative design of the flashback sequences and taped interviews with unreliable narrators made for a compelling show. The two main characters spent the entire season together, playing off each other and revealing more about their characters with every interaction.
Now compare that to season 2 where all of the main characters spend most of their time completely isolated from one another. In the start of the second episode, the state sets up a special investigative team and throws Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh together. They meet in some crappy warehouse for a couple of minutes, and then split up, never to be in the same room again until pretty much the tail-end of the show. We get some shots of Velcoro and Bezzerides driving around together, and these scenes are good. The two definitely had some chemistry together, but then the show inexplicably separates them again.
So instead of watching these characters interact and learning who they are from those interactions, we instead get to watch each character deal with their own personal issues separately. Frank dealt with his crumbling empire and his impotent balls, Velcoro was in a custody battle for his son, and Paul was desperately trying to catch a case of the Not-Gays. Bezzerides spent the first four episodes dealing with a pair of scorned lovers at work and then the last four episodes dealing with her childhood rape.
Even when the characters are together, they spend so much time delivering clumsy exposition that we never get any of the incredible character interactions that made the first season so memorable. When Woodrugh dies, in a goofy assassination scene straight out of a Victorian play, Velcoro and Bezzerides spend about two minutes mourning his loss before delving right back into expository dialogue about how to find the orphaned brother.
No one’s character ever experienced any kind of dramatic arc, or changed in any way, and without strongly written characters, the performances of the actors were severely ham-stringed. If they’d had a script that allowed them to act out their characters more often, rather than idly standing around explaining the plot of their show to the audience, they might have given us performances on par with Harrelson and McConaughey.
Ultimately though, they wasted most of their time explaining the show because…
1. Nothing About Anything Made Sense
When you look at most of the events that occurred in this season of True Detective, you’ll come to one inescapable conclusion.
Nothing about anything ever made sense.
The events of this show didn’t follow any kind of logic, except maybe some kind of internal logic of the writer that is incomprehensible to mere human minds. Instead, things happened because the plot demanded they happen. It was cheap and succeeded only in wasting everybody’s time.
One the most glaring examples of this plot contrivance is the raid on the sex party about midway through the season. Bezzerides has used her sister’s porn connections to get her into one of the sex parties that Caspere was such a fan of. Masquerading as a prostitute, Bezzerides gets drugged and stumbles her way through the party, eventually finding a missing girl who knew Caspere. Meanwhile Velcoro and Woodrugh are going full Splinter Cell, sneaking around the house and taking out guards. Eventually they stumble upon the architects of the rail corridor going over some documents. They steal the documents, save the girl and flee into the night.
Now let’s rewind and ask ourselves one very important question:
What was the plan here?
Seriously, I’m asking, what was the group’s plan?
What was the reason? What were they looking for? Finding the missing girl and retrieving the documents were all purely happenstance, so what was the original objective? What was Bezzerides there to find out? Was she going to ask the other prostitutes who Caspere hung out with? Gather evidence of who was attending these parties?
Why was Woodrugh choking out guards and stealing documents? Shouldn’t he have been waiting as backup in the woods? Why risk discovery?
The answer to all the above is simple: the plot demanded that the characters be in a certain place at a certain time, and so they were. Now tons of stories rely on coincidences to drive their story forward, but most stories give their characters some reason for being at the right place at the right time. John McClane is in that building because he was attending a Christmas party at his wife’s work. Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer intercepts the Blockade Runner at Tatooine because that’s where Princess Leia was heading there to contact Obi-wan. Point is, most stories make an attempt to create a plausible reason for things to happen, even if that reason is paper thin it gives the audience a foundation for their suspended disbelief.
This season’s True Detective didn’t even bother giving us that foundation. I want you to look at something.
This is Velcoro getting out his car to say goodbye to his son after his successful heist of the Russian/Catalast money exchange. Notice that the street is as dry as only a never-ending California drought can make it.
This is what Velcoro finds when he comes back to the car.
There’s a pool of water under Velcoro’s car. At first I thought the gas tank had been punctured and that’s what I was supposed to be seeing, but he drives away just fine. No, it’s just ordinary water and it appears spontaneously so that Velcoro can see a reflection of the red light on a tracking device in the water. This is just so lazy that I can’t even believe I’m seeing it in what must have been a multi-million dollar HBO production.
They could have put an extra out on the street watering his lawn. Boom, a reason for the water pooling under his car, see how easy and painless that was. That’s all it would have taken, it still would have been incredibly lazy but it would have been something at least.
And on that I rest my case, because if you can’t even move your plot along without a car peeing itself, then you have officially failed to tell a good story.