I joined the BioWare social network because of my deep enjoyment and interest in both the Dragon Age franchise and the Mass Effect franchise. Unfortunately there does seem to be a tendency to go for the flame among some of the members. Because we are all geeks there is also a tendency to focus on minutia. We saw it a lot when I was on Star Trek:TNG. After each episode aired there would be so many letters about our technobabble pointing out that we had said something that was contradictory to what we had said in an earlier episode. Bad dialog (technobabble can never be good no matter how good the actor delivering it) about technology that didn’t exist engendered passionate responses. Why? Because at its core Star Trek and the Federation felt very real. And that’s a good thing. That’s what we strive to have happen as creators.
However, focusing on nits never gets you to a valuable analysis of story and how they should work. I was very disappointed by the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, but we were literally talking about some ten to fifteen minutes at the very end where things went off the rails. For most of the two and three quarters of the game it was marvelous and a magnificent achievement. And last night as I was looking at the level of vitriol against BioWare and other members of the social network who are still disappointed, and I realized that a.) people were missing the point, and b.) that I actually owed the franchise a debt of gratitude. Not just because it had given me many hours of enjoyment until those final minutes, but because it helped me focus in on the craft of writing, gave me new insights into what I do and how I do it. As a result I have used this games as the basis for the past four lectures I have delivered, two at universities and two at science fiction conventions.
This shouldn’t be about picking nits. The Star Child’s argument makes no sense. It contradicts something that was said by a character in the second game, etc. None of that matters. This is a lesson in the craft of writing. What I have learned from my analysis of this game is that the fundamentals of writing are fairly straight forward. There are rules. Formulas even — and formula is not a dirty word. Every kind of story has at its heart a formula. TV shows especially have formulas. We couldn’t keep up with the shooting schedule if each show didn’t develop its own set of tropes and formula.
Bottom line you follow the rules and you ‘ll end up with a story that makes sense. It might not be magnificent, move people to tears, or joyful laughter but it will at least be competent. Writing rules are like the rules of music theory — once you understand how music is structured you can compose. Now does that mean that you have the gifts of a Mozart or Beethoven and will create a pretty song? No. But it will be correct in terms of the rules of composition. Understanding theory is also no guarantee that you can sing or play a musical instrument.
I have long believed that the ability to write is very analogous to having musical talent. Some people are tone deaf. My mother was one of those. She never “got” music. It was okay to listen to and to dance, but it wasn’t in her soul, deep in her bones. Yes, she could have learned to play an instrument, understood the rules of theory, but whether performing or creating her music would never have… well, sung. I can impart to anyone the rules, but what is produced may not change a mind or touch a heart. There is, in fact, such a thing as talent.
The graphic artists and programers who create these games have a talent. Now we just need to see the gaming industry realize that you need people with an equal gift for writing, and then this new and vibrant form of entertainment will only climb to new heights.