Tag Archives: Game Writing

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.

 

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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

Bioshock Infinite: What the Hell Just Happened?

That’s the question on everyone’s mind. Or at least it was the question on my mind when I finally finished Bioshock Infinite, and if your mind doesn’t work like mine then frankly I don’t want to know you.

Since understanding what the hell is going on is integral to being able to understand the narrative and the wonderful nuances behind it, I’ve decided to make that the first article in this series. I’m going into this assuming you played through the game, it helps if you’ve played through it twice but isn’t obligatory. Since Bioshock: Infinite gives no definitive answers to anything, almost everything is open to interpretation, so the following includes a lot of speculation on my part but I’ve pieced together the story as accurately as I can.

Lutece and the Beginning

Heads or Tails?
There is Method to their Madness.

The first time I played through Bioshock Infinite the Lutece twins didn’t appear that important to the story, and in fact I thought they were a bit of a deus ex machina when they revealed the trick to controlling Songbird. Upon a second playthrough though, and after much reflection on the story, the Lutece twins are actually critical to the story. Much of the action that unfolds during the game is a direct result of their actions and there’s a reason they’re the first characters we meet in the game: they are the ones who began this story.

The beginning of Bioshock Infinite isn’t really the beginning of the story and part of the reason the game’s narrative is so hard to follow at first is because we’re only seeing a small piece of the story. The true beginning revolves entirely around Lutece and her discovery of quantum particles, the theoretical technology that allows Columbia to float and allows the interdimensional travel that dominates the game’s setting. From what I’ve been able to piece together, Lutece’s discovery and subsequent harnessing of the quantum particles is the inciting incident that sets off the entire story. After all, without a floating Columbia and the ability to see into future realities, Comstock would have been just another cult leader that would have faded into obscurity.

The actual sequence of events is more difficult to piece together, was this before or after the Wounded Knee massacre, did Comstock find her first or did she find him. There are countless questions, but regardless of the answers, it’s clear that eventually Lutece needed further funding in order to continue her work. Either Comstock or the US government grants her that funding, leading her to a practical application for her  quantum particles and the creation of Columbia. Whether it’s Comstock that directs Lutece to begin research into opening interdimensional windows, or it was Lutece’s idea and Comstock just later found a way to corrupt it, I don’t know. Regardless, it’s while experimenting with this technology that Lutece meets her brother.

Except it’s not her brother in the traditional sense, but rather herself from a different reality where the sperm that impregnated her mother’s egg carried a Y chromosome instead another X.

Wow, that got real weird, real fast. God I love this game.
Wow, that got real weird real fast. God I love this game.

Eventually Lutece succeeds in bringing her “brother” from the other universe and the two begin their strange love-affair with quantum physics, completely uncaring that they’re working for a monster so long as their scientific curiosity is sated. As we all know, this comes to bite them in the ass later down the road.

Comstock uses Lutece’s experiments to see “visions” of the future and cement his god-like position as The Prophet of Columbia. Much like Marie Curie when she discovered radium, though, neither Comstock nor the Luteces understand the dangers of the radiation being produced by their experiments. Comstock becomes sterilized and stricken with malignant cancer, spurning him on to find an heir to carry on his legacy.

Comstock turns his floating paradise into a floating war machine and destroys his political enemies while the Luteces are forced to frantically find a way to obtain Comstock an heir. That’s when they stumble onto our friend and protagonist Booker Dewitt, a Comstock who did not take the baptism and who never pursued research in theoretical physics, and who fathered a daughter. Even better, Booker is a broken man, an alcoholic gambler who is so bent on self-destruction that it seems there’s no end to the depth he’s willing to fall into. They offer a deal: Give us the girl and wash away the debt.

He does, and Comstock raises her as his own. The Lutece twins continue to do research on the girl, who has been given amazing powers since her transferal from one universe to another. As Lutece comments in one of her tapes, perhaps this is the universe’s way of correcting itself. I’ll touch on that later down the road, so keep it in mind. Comstock succeeds in raising Anna as his daughter, but in doing so he becomes more power hungry and more sadistic in his treatment of his enemies. Everyone who knows the truth about Anna is eventually killed in order to secure Comstock’s legacy, and ultimately the Luteces end up buried side by side after being executed by Comstock.

Anna becomes the Seed who Sits Upon the Throne, and Drowns in Fire the Cities of Men. New York burns and the world is left in a state of chaos.

The end of one story, and the start of another.
The end of one story, and the start of another.

Death is Only the Beginning

The Luteces, though dead, are alive. As they repeatedly tell us during the course of the game: Lived, Live, Will Live. Dead, Died, Will Die. Yes, they are dead, but they are also still alive in the past. The Luteces experiments have made them much more perceptive to the changes in time and history than the other characters, and knowing where their fate lies, endeavor to change it. Lutece speculates in one tape that continually moving through universes dilutes and eventually erases a persons individuality. Which is why, by the time we run across them, they act and speak almost identically.

Anyway, they need to stop Comstock from completely wrecking the timeline and the universe with their technology, but much like Booker they can’t change the choices they’ve already made. It has happened and it will happen. The only thing left to do is fling someone else into the equation, a variable that will allow them to change the events of their lives. Booker DeWitt is their variable. Their dialogue suggests that they’ve used Booker countless times already (you can collect audiologs from a universe where he failed), throwing him into different universes trying to find one where he succeeds and undoes the damage they unwittingly inflicted. In a way the Luteces are much like Anna at the end of the game, only far less powerful. Whereas Anna can move through every universe with ease, and see every strand of history and time as a single tapestry, the Luteces are far more limited. They can only see one string at a time, and they’ve been patiently pulling each one with Booker DeWitt, hoping to find the one that will unravel the whole mess. Obviously I can’t answer how exactly this works, and an explanation would likely just ruin the whole story, so in the end just accept that the Luteces have somehow learned to shift through dimensions and enjoy the story.

We finally arrive at the beginning of the game: Booker DeWitt being rowed to yet another lighthouse containing yet another universe. With this context you understand why the two Luteces are arguing during the opening moments, they’ve tried this experiment countless times before and it’s never worked, but like the male Lutece says “Just because an experiment has failed, doesn’t necessarily mean it will fail.”

They drop Booker off at his latest destination and Bioshock Infinite officially begins.

You still with me?

Of course you are, because this is the part that makes sense.
Of course you are, because this is the part that makes sense.

Booker DeWitt, Elizabeth and The Universe 

I’ll be covering the events of the actual game in another article, but for the purposes of this article I’m assuming everyone has already played through the game, so I’ll be skipping to the ending that boggled everyone’s mind.

Comstock is dead, Songbird is a scrapheap at the bottom of the ocean, and the Siphon that was limiting Elizabeth’s power is gone. With her powers fully unlocked Elizabeth brings us to the Lighthouse Forest (hey shut up, you come up with a better name for it) representing the infinite entrances to infinite realities. So first of all, how the hell does Elizabeth know how to get here?

Well now we need to go back to one of Lutece’s audiologs, the one where she speculates that the origin of Elizabeth’s powers are the result of the universe attempting to correct itself. Comstock has royally pissed off time and space by fucking with things that were not meant to be fucked with. Perhaps the Luteces are also an attempt by the universe to repair the damage wrought by Comstock’s insanity, allowing them to pull DeWitt from his native universe and using him as a wildcard to try and repair everything. Regardless, something draws Elizabeth to a very specific point in time and space: the river where Booker DeWitt and Comstock both arrived to try and wash away their sins. Comstock went through with it while DeWitt refused. This is a focal point in history where Elizabeth has the chance to eliminate Comstock forever. As Comstock speculates in one of his audiologs:

“Who is the man under the water? Perhaps he is both Sinner and Saint.”

From this point history diverges: thousands of universes are created as Comstocks go on to create the nightmarish dystopias in countless Columbias and thousands of Dewitts go on to rescue thousands of Annas/Elizabeths. Our DeWitt succeeded but the other Elizabeths that appear here seem to indicate that countless others failed. Too many Annas to save, too many Comstocks to stop, and too much pain to erase. They can’t fix all of the infinite universes one at a time.

But here, in this river at this moment in time, they can stop this entire chain of events before they unfold.

And so DeWitt makes the ultimate sacrifice. He allows himself to drown.

Symbolism

Comstock is never reborn, he never crosses the barrier between worlds and Elizabeth is spared a life of pain and isolation.

And that’s what the hell happened.

And why Bioshock: Infinite is awesome.

If you liked this article you should read about:

Bioshock: Columbia vs Rapture

On the philosophical and sociopolitical themes explored by the original Bioshock compared to Bioshock: Infinite.

Bioshock: Forgive my Infinite Sins

My personal interpretation of the main theme of Bioshock: Infinite; why forgiveness is key to living a healthy life.

Drowning in Columbia

AKA: Why Booker Could Drown in a Cup of Water.