It’s The Craft That Matters

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.

11 Responses to It’s The Craft That Matters

  • Tim S says:

    Hi Melinda,

    Once all the frustration and disappointment over the Mass Effect 3 finale had firmly settled in, I started considering just how powerful an impact the trilogy had left on me and all the thousands of fans arguing, pleading or discussing their concerns in a more or less civil manner. Storytelling is powerful. I respect the writer’s craft, spending all the spare time I can muster writing fiction and playing story-driven games. And the stories told in modern videogames through atmosphere, compelling characters and clever dialogue are vastly improving, though I recently returned to an old favorite of mine, namely The Longest Journey, which combines fantasy, sci-fi and humor (my three favorite things).

    Now to the question at heart; I don’t suppose those lectures exist in some digital format, somewhere in the depths of the Internet? :)

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    Sadly, no, Tim. Unless some student happen to tape them. One lecture was at the Santa Fe College of fine arts. The other at USC.

    I try not to be too rude about the ending — but bottom line — it was terrible. There is simply no way to soften that conclusion. There were so many rules of good story telling that were violated in those final fifteen minutes. And for the life of me I can’t figure out why the folks at BioWare didn’t grab hold of the indoctrination theory as if it were a lift raft, and recast that extended cut DLC. The fans created a brilliant and elegant solution, and offered it to them on a silver platter.

    I’ve got to say I’m not finding games that give the joy and sense of accomplishment of Dragon Age: Origins and Awakenings or most Mass Effect. Skyrim is beautiful, but it bored the snot out me. Same with Bioshock, and Deus X — again looks great, but not having companions is a big deal for me. I hear Knights of the Old Republic is wonderful, but I hadn’t been able to get past the horrible dialog. Perhaps I’ll try again after I say farewell to Mass Effect.

    I think the video game companies are still focusing far too much on the mechanics of game play and graphics, and not understanding that everything starts with story, and fails if the story isn’t there. Dragon Age2 was awful. Granted it was rushed, but the story was a mess. I have an analysis of that game here on the blog somewhere.

    I’m also upset at the nonsense coming out of some of the powers-that-be at BioWard claiming that those of us who are upset are a “minority” of the fans. You should check out this very thoughtful analysis by the CleverNoobs. You can find it here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gu731UtTFqo

  • Doughnut says:

    Have you played the games from Witcher series? They are based on the books from polish fantasy writer. Especially the second one is great. The setting is kinda similar to dragon age world. You don’t have companions like in dragon age, or mass effect but you really feel the story reflects your decisions. Or if you like companions I would suggest old game Planescape torment. Like I said its old now, but is kinda cult classic. The settings is really different from normal fantasy (no elfs and stuff) and the story is just great,. It’s also quite dialogue heavy.

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    I have not played Witcher. The idea that my choices would actually matter is very appealing to me. That another thing I loved about DA. If you were a right bastard you could end up with virtually every companion abandoning you, and what can happen with Alistair. Wow.

    I confess the companions are a big part of my enjoyment. Particularly when a company creates such interesting companions, and for a long time BioWare set the standard for that. I found the companions in DA2 to be “meh”, and of course the story was just a mess, but DA:Origins and Mass Effect — just brilliant.

    I do find that the better gaming engines and graphics are affecting how I think of the older games, but ultimately I go back to story, story, story.

    I wonder if there is anything new coming along that has both RPG elements, a powerful story, and companions?

  • Doughnut says:

    Well the decisions in the Witcher games are not that much about you deciding about being good or bad, because the personality of the character you play is kinda already established in the books as beign rather grey one, but more about how the story unfolds according your decisions.
    And to your question I must say that besides bioware and their games (DA,ME) I can’t recall anyone doing this sort of games anymore. There is bunch of old games in the story/companions spirit. Like I said the planescape, Icewind dale, or baldurs gate series (the DA: origins is actually spiritual succesor to baldurs gate), but unfortunatelly their are outdated now and not that visually appealing.

  • Tim S says:

    Torment: Tides of Numenera is having a rather succesful kickstarter campaign these days, and promises a rich story-driven RPG experience with companions, albeit played from an isometric point of view. The producers promises that choices will matter and impact the world, and makes a point that the ending will reflect upon player decisions.

    Dreamfall Chapters (the sequel to The Longest Journey) is a puzzle/adventure game in development. There are no companions, save for the wise-cracking talking crow, but the previous installments in the trilogy were critically acclaimed due to their intriguing storylines, well-crafted dialogue and character development. Alas, we probably won’t see either game released until 2013 or 2014.

    Have you played Telltale Games – The Walking Dead? A point and click horror RPG, focusing on character development rather than combat.

    When it comes to RPG/FPS games with companions, however, I think Bioware’s developers will remain the uncrowned kings for a while. That is, unless they decide to downplay player decisions and dialogue choices in future titles. I can imagine that a linear combat-driven game would appeal to a broader player segment and reduce costs.

    But it’s probably too early to speculate still.

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    If companies go to more linear, combat-driven games they are going to miss out on a huge market — women.

    It bums me out when I’m promised consequences and there are none. I spared the rachni queen. She was going to fight with me, but if you killed her another queen shows up. I should have been rewarded for my act of mercy. In DA2 I sided with the mages and was going to protect them from the Templars, and then the chief mage went nuts so I ended up having to fight him as well as the commander of the templars which was just stupid. I made a choice. That should stand. It undermines the power of the story if it’s just all about the combat.

    If you want to see how the other fight goes replay and make a different choice, but don’t have the choices not matter.

    I’m a completist when I play. I scan every planet. I do all the loyalty missions — again that should have been rewarded. I suppose the EMS thing did reward you to the extent the Earth was not a burned out cinder, but the scans and side missions ended up feeling pointless.

    Thanks for the info on these upcoming games, Tim. I will look for them. I tend to shy away from all things horror — books, movies, TV. I’m a big wimp and horror literally gives me nightmares.

  • Tim S says:

    Regarding horror, I suppose that rules out the Dead Space series as well. Though, if you take away all the lumbering monsters, the scenery is pretty. : )

    I can relate to the completionist playthrough affinity. The eavesdropping fetch quests that ME3 offered did not have quite the same appeal as the prior scan-land-explore formula. I had my hopes up for DLC or an expansion, that would attach regular missions to the fetch quests. Something, anything, they could have crafted an intricate tie-in story, where the away team consists of two select crewmembers, who would then banter and reflect upon prior missions, opinions of their outcome and their relationship with Shepard.

    I agree that the rachni were handled strangely in ME3, and yet again a regular expansion or tools for the modding community would have been a welcome sight. I enjoyed their appearance in the Marauder Shields comics, however.

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    I really loved the Mako and hated it when they got rid of it. Some of the most amazing graphics were on the various planets you explored in ME1. The scanning was dull in 2, but felt utterly pointless in 3. Gamers come up with the most wonderful words and phrases — headcanon, fetch quests, etc.

    And yeah, I really missed the interactions with the companions that you had in Dragon Age. You never knew when there was going to be a new conversation, and sometimes what people said to each other gave you a real insight into how they viewed your character.

  • SquidEatinDough says:

    Oh, you GOTTA play Telltale’s Walking Dead game (currently in the midst of Season 2)! The game is not really horror/survival so much as a really emotional and engaging character-based drama. I really feel you’ll love it. It’s miles above the TV show and comics, too, so don’t feel turned off if you didn’t like those.

    • Also, in case it needs mentioning, it’s interactive. An RPG in the classic sense (except you don’t create the protagonist entirely from scratch, not in the “collect/loot/raise stats” sense.

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I suspect that religion was some random by-product of mammalian reproduction… a necessary evil in the childhood of our species… but why was it more evil than necessary? Isn’t killing people in the name of God a pretty good definition of insanity? — Arthur C. Clarke (1917 – 2008)

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