Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What Plot Would You Write?

I'm playing Mass Effect: Andromeda, and I've been slightly disappointed by the writing. Putting aside the dialog, I'd like to talk about the wider elements.

Spoilers, but only vague ones.

The game is about a large group of colonists leaping from the Milky Way to Andromeda in vast arks, targeting a few specific worlds that seem inhabitable. They cryosleep for 600 years, and awake when they arrive.

There are some holes here that need some Unobtainium patching, but it's not a bad idea. It sets up a massive project, seals the path backwards, and isolates us from the extensive (and problematic) pre-existing lore.

However, that's not the full setup. There's a million things going on, and they all need to be explained before the story can even get started. That's not a great idea: any one of the setup elements could easily have supported the whole game without making it super-complex, and that would have made the writing easier.

Talking about how writing can be "made easier" might seem a little odd, but the simple truth is that if the scenario is set up well, writing flows well and needs less forcing. This is especially true of characters.

In a game where the player can do a huge number of different sub-plots in a variety of orders, it's critical that they feel some connection to the places and things going on. The easiest way to do this is to have the party members have some connection to nearly every subplot.

If they care, we'll care.

This is a pretty typical approach. In fact, it's the classic Mass Effect approach: in ME1 and ME2, that's how it was done. The characters resonated with nearly every scenario.

For example, Garrus was all about the nature of vigilantism. Well, so was the plot of Mass Effect! The subplots naturally had the concept come up all the time, and therefore Garrus always had something to do or say. Naturally this culminated in him trying to clean up that hellhole asteroid as Archangel, a microcosm of your whole adventure.

Wrex was the same, but about war instead of vigilantism. War was a core theme, and kept coming up. When was it good? Bad? Necessary? Out of control? Tired? Heroic? Desperate? What are we willing to fight for - no, not just fight, but go to war for? And when do we stop?

Both war and vigilantism were threaded into nearly every scenario in the game because the game was built on a single foundation, a simple setup that allowed the writers to easily explore those concepts in a lot of different ways. Although simpler, the setup for the earlier Mass Effect games was not smaller. It could support just as much play, story, and depth... just focused on deeply exploring a few themes instead of shallowly exploring a lot of them.

To put it another way: it's impossible to tell where Garrus ends and the story begins.

A good character flows everywhere they need to be, naturally, unforced.

A bad character stands to the side and watched the story go by. Even if they have good writing or voice acting or are compelling, if they just stand there, they're bad.

This is a big failure in Mass Effect: Andromeda's writing.

For example, Cora. She's a human psychic that worked as an Asari commando. This is a really interesting idea that has really powerful themes.

The actual in-game writing of Cora is clearly "Asari ark contact + conflicts with Peebee". She doesn't flow into the wider story - she's simply wedged into "her place" as a representative of a specific story element. This is probably because there's a lot of specific story elements and they don't have much thematic connection.

Cora's history working with a group of weird alien commandos and desperately trying to earn their trust? Well, that's literally what you do with the Angara. You literally work with Angaran commandos and try to earn their trust. But Cora has nothing to say about it. She's not involved.

The fact that Cora cannot live long enough to complete Asari commando training? That's fascinating, and could easily connect to things like our 600 year cryosleep, or to the Angaran elders that cannot seem to find any fresh new students. Again, Cora has no comment.

This is easily explained: the Angaran stuff is Jaal's place. Jaal does that stuff. Cora isn't involved, except for some minor flavor commentary.

This goes for every character. Jaal's thing is imposter syndrome, but he has no connection to Nexus and its leaders? Even though the thematic connection is clear? Jaal doesn't even have any connection to an Angaran port world conquered by pirates!

The lines drawn around what each character is involved in are sharp and clear.

Unfortunately, that means that for 99% of the story, Cora and Jaal just stand there. They aren't involved.

This is true of all the characters in ME:A, and I think it's why we just don't feel as much connection to them as we did to ME1 and ME2 characters. Those characters went through an adventure with us. These characters just stand nearby while we go through an adventure.

It also makes it difficult for us to care about our adventure!

In ME2, visiting the hellhole asteroid was interesting because two of our characters were deeply involved in trying to fix the place in their own way.

But in ME:A, visiting a similar hellhole is dull. There's no major characters with any significant ties to the world. They don't even get involved in local affairs - just some flavor text. Instead, your contact is some boring smuggler and a woman with a dirty face, neither of whom anyone cares about.

Even characters that should have a history with either the smuggler or the pirate queen... don't. Vetra apparently has no comment on this smuggler, despite using smugglers extensively. Peebee has no particular comment on the pirate queen, despite them both living through the same civil war on the same tiny space station!

This is because Vetra's story is Vetra's story and doesn't interact with the rest of the world. And so neither does Vetra. Peebee, too: lock her up in her own little room, no contact with the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, this means that I don't care about the pirate base. Moreover, the writers missed a chance to make me care more about the crewmembers. If Vetra was the smuggler trying to fix up the pirate world, Vetra would have a chance to impress me and spend meaningful time with me, as well as giving me a reason to care about the pirate world. But... nope. Some boring Han Solo wannabee that is also nicely cordoned off into his own little room.

Writing characters that thread through the game is not terribly hard. The fact that the ME:A characters don't even try makes me think that the writers came up with a plan to partition these elements specifically to reduce complexity - otherwise, they would have written some involvement on accident, I would think.

Whether on purpose or on accident, ME:A's partitioned storylines are a huge disservice to the world and the characters. It starves our critical crewmembers of screentime, and leaves each world feeling uninteresting and pointless.

On a writing level, there are some techniques you can use to make it easier to make the characters flow through your scenarios. A key factor is choosing a simple foundation so you have more repeating themes. IE, vigilantism explored in a hundred variations means a hundred chances for Garrus to have something to do/say.

If ME:A didn't have such a complex setup, a lot of these things would have flowed naturally as the writers searched for interesting ideas in the simpler story space.

But... the fact that they didn't do it at all, not even on accident, implies they wrote it like this on purpose. In which case simplifying the setup would not have helped.

At least, that's my theory. What's yours?

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