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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.

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.

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


Buried…In Bad Writing

Buried is a 2009 Spanish film starring Ryan Reynolds and…well actually that’s it. Some other people lend their voices (the stage crew by the quality of it…) but otherwise it’s just Ryan Reynolds in a box. Oh yeah, did I mention it all takes place in a box? Yeah…

This is another movie, like Winter’s Bone, that recieved many plaudits from many reviewers for its acting, directing, photography,  the choreographed dance scenes…no wait, that was a different movie. But, like most reviewers, they completely ignored the story in their review.

And there I finally found my calling. I’m going to review Stories! The stories of games, movies, and book. Since every other reviewer seems content to concentrate on cinematography, acting, directing and choreographed dance scenes, and they all all seem to neglect the poor story, it falls to me to take up the plight of these poor neglected stories.. Movies, games and books were all developed to tell stories, and yet most reviewers don’t seem to give a damn about the story. No longer.

So, on to Buried and the story therein. First of all, all the reviewers are correct, the acting and directing and blah blah blah are all great. The problem is the story…it is in a word…terrible. Certainly not the worst (Star Wars: Episode 1 and End of Violence still hold the tie on that one) but it was pretty bad.

First of all, let’s talk suspension of disbelief: a lot of people have this notion that it’s some kind of fixed point, like a gas tank that will eventually run out if you push it too far. But it’s more like a magic trick, as long as you can keep the audience’s attention on something else while you pull something completely unbelievable out your hat, it all works out. The problem is if someone spots the card up your sleeve or you accidentally disappear into the trap door before the puff of smoke. And that’s the first problem we have with Buried.

The only interaction our main character has with the outside world is a cellphone. Well that makes sense right, I mean he needs some way to communicate with the outside world otherwise this is going to be a really dull movie. But then its starts straying into the country of ridiculous and stupid, and not only stays there but applies for citizenship.

So we’re presented with 3 facts right of the bat:

1. Our main character is buried underground, deep enough that he can’t simply push the lid off and climb out.

2. He’s a civilian contractor working in Iraq.

3. He’s possesses the most powerful cellphone in the known world.

I could accept him calling people in Iraq, maybe a cellphone signal could penetrate through 6 feet of sand enough to make local calls. But when he starts calling his family, his company, the FBI in Milwaukee, and at one point calls 911 to be connected to a local dispatch station in Ohio things start to get a little ridiculous. Now this is the point where another writer would distract us from this obvious break from reality with emotional dialog or cutting to scenes of people answering the phone or something. But not here, we spend much of our time listening to some of the most boring voicemail messages that rival the automated messages you get from technical support. So while we’re listening to these boring messages we have no other recourse but to wonder how exactly he’s getting a signal underground. I mean my cellphone can’t even get a signal from inside my local YMCA.

At first I thought this was going to be one of those movies that had a startling revelation at the end. That he wasn’t actually in Iraq, that he was actually just in a tightly sealed box maybe encased in cement and was in the US. In fact some of the dialog even seems to suggest this is some kind of elaborate con, especially when the FBI starts asking for his social security number. Alas, it’s not so.

But okay, let’s ignore the cellphone supernatural abilities, after all I watch and enjoyed Terminator 2 despite the horrific temporal causality loops that it spawns. Let’s concentrate on how his character reacts. He’s human, so it stands to reason that he’ll act like a human being right? Well, unfortunately that’s apparently too much to ask for.

Now in the following situation what would you do?

Your locked in a box, on the phone with your potential rescuer and he’s telling you its important to stay on the line. But then your kidnapper calls, what do you do?

1. Keep on the line with the guy trying to save your life!

2. Act like a complete moron and hang up

Well anyone with half a brain is going to stay on the line with their rescuer. But apparently our main character was dropped on his head as a baby and hangs up to listen some guy with a bad approximation of an arabic accent ramble on in broken English. How does that make any sense? Well maybe the writer wanted to show the antagonists motives…well if that was his intention than he should have kept the antagonist completely unknown.

You see his kidnapper/potential killer wants 3 million american dollars. Now see, that just presents more questions than it answers.

First of all why would a kidnapper, whose entire business strategy revolves around keeping the kidnapped close at hand for an exchange, bury his victim in the middle of nowhere? Where he could run out of oxygen, or be bitten by venomous animals, or kill himself out of desperation, or worse yet actually be rescued?

Okay, well maybe he was just screwing with the guys mind right? He just wants to send a message to the American invaders, come here and you’ll be buried alive! Well…except until our kidnapper demands our main character that he make a ransom video himself. Yeah…that’s pretty bad planning, you forgot to make the ransom video before burying him?

Oh, and that’s not even the worst part. They discount him. That’s right, when he says to the kidnapper no one will pay 3 million for him, they bump it down to 1 million. I’m pretty sure the kidnappers in Ruthless People did the exact same thing, and they at least had the presence of mind to keep their potential payday within arms reach.

So we have a stupid main character, even dumber criminals, and the most inane conversations I’ve ever heard. At one point the main character, with his cellphone (the only link the outside world and potential rescue) dying, sits through a 5 minute conversation with his boss about how he’s been terminated from the company. Now I for one would not sit around listening to my inane boss prattle on about litigation if I were locked in a casket underground with death only moments away. I get that the writer wants to make a statement about the litigious nature of society today, but you could show some subtlety in doing so.

So what’s worthwhile in this film? Basically everything else. The cinematography, the acting, and the direction are all superb.

The story is still stupid though.