Friday, May 18, 2012

Dishonesty is the second best policy (video games and writing, again)

As I reported in February of last year, my son got me playing video games while recovering from an injury. To a certain extent my interest is legit – I do write for games – but there's no reason for me to actually play any of them. My son, the statistical analyst preparing for a career in game design, has a reason to play all of them; first as a player for the experience, then as a clinician dissecting it to discover how they were put together. My gateway game, the one my son used to lure me into the dark world of X-Box 360, was Borderlands – a first-person shooter/adventure game. (This means the player sees the game world through the eyes of the character; must complete a quest involving many side-journeys or tests, and there's a gun.) It remains my favorite and I'm anticipating the release of Borderlands 2 with more excitement than a wizened elder should. Another favorite of mine is Dark Souls (a third-person sword & sorcery adventure game), but it runs a distant third behind the endlessly amusing Portals series, which jockeys with Borderlands for first in my affections. (You know you've played too much Portals when you think a "There is no cake!" T-shirt is funny.) Portals is non-violent, or at least non-fatal, while the others involve killing enemies of many sorts. But the killing is not the point. Sure, gunning, bowing, swording, etc., are all important skills, but the satisfaction in adventure games is applying strategic and tactical thinking, along with a good bit of puzzle/problem solving, to outthink the game. (Or figuring out what the game's creators were up to.)

What I cannot abide are video role-playing games (RPGs); I have no interest in the Fallout series, the endless Final Fantasies, scrolling Elders, or Mass Effect. These are games in which the player's choices and responses to dialog not only determine the story's path but shape her own character and the artificial characters around her. The plots are complex, with many variables, and the player must direct the actions of her companions in addition to her own. While this may sound like a writer's meat, it is not, at least not for me; the choices are limited, with no outside-the-box options. I dislike playing video RPGs for the same reason I dislike playing dice – I have no real control over outcomes. On the other hand, I really enjoy discussing and dissecting these games with my son. His heart belongs to adventure/role-playing games, and that's where he's planning to stake his future. We spend hours going over the stories and decisions trees of various games; weighing what works, what doesn't, and why.

Which is how I've come to know so much about BioWare's Mass Effect series and the controversy surrounding the final conclusion of the three-game saga. The ending of Mass Effect 3 (ME3) so upset players there were protests to the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau. (Do I need to warn folks the rest of this column is hip-deep in ME3 spoilers?) I don't know if the FTC responded, but the BBB ruled that the game's developers "falsely advertised about their claims regarding the player's control over the game's outcome.". (If you follow that link and scroll to the bottom of the page, you'll find a video explaining the outrage, complete with scenes from the game to illustrate. Don't be thrown off by the gender-flipping hero in the clips – players choose whether Shepherd, their alter ego in the game, is male or female.)

I have spent way too many hours trying to trim the Mass Effect saga down to something less than 5000 words, but I can't do it. Plus anything over 1000 would bore everyone not interested in the game to tears. Suffice it to say that in order to reach the end of the third game, a player has invested 180 to 240 hours in front of the screen making choices and solving mysteries that lead up to the final moment: As Shepherd (the player) is dying s/he is given three options, three imperfect choices - each with both benefits and consequences - to end the galaxy-wide war that is destroying all civilizations. You can bet many players paused the game and considered all potential consequences before deciding. But, no doubt with some trepidation, they made their final, climactic choice and…
It made no difference.
No matter which of the three options the player chooses, everything goes boom (with galaxy map showing booms everywhere), followed by a short movie (aka "cut scene") of all Shepherd's friends surviving a spaceship crash-landing in a verdant jungle, then stumbling out of the wreckage to survey their new world. Roll credits. After the credits there's a short film of an old man, ostensibly a great grandchild of the crash survivors (and voiced by real astronaut Buzz Aldrin), standing with his grandson in a field looking up at a starry sky. They discuss the legend of "the Shepherd" and then vow that someday humanity would return to the stars.

This ending is something of a cliché in science fiction, an overworked trope that can be done well – and as such endings go, the boy and grandfather considering the stars is acceptable. BUT. Shepherd's mission through three epic games has been to unite disparate races, convince life-long enemies to overcome their hatred, lead xenophobes to embrace that which they fear, and unite the races in forming a galaxy-wide alliance to face a common foe. Every event in the game is dependant on choices the player makes; and to reach the final, climactic decision the player has made thousands of choices. After the equivalent of ten days in front of the screen, she is heavily invested in how the saga ends. And when the saga does end, it's a 10-minute movie revealing everything she'd done had been pointless, nothing could change the final outcome.

What has that got to do with writing? Everything. Every ending must proceed from the story – no matter how tragic or triumphant, the ending must complete the story and satisfy the reader. Even a surprise ending (especially a surprise ending) must be prefigured, with evidence clearly in place. Even if the reader does not like the ending of your story, she must be able to see why and how the tale reached that resolution. Because when the reader knows you respect her enough to treat her fairly and respect your craft enough to tell a story honestly, even if she'd prefer a different ending to this story, she'll be willing to take a chance on your next. And that's how you build a relationship.


Charles Gramlich said...

My favorite games over the years have been the Doom games. I'm currently playing two RP games, Red Dead Redemption, and Skyrim. I'm enjoying them very much, not for the character development elements, but for the adventure and discovery elements. I love finding and exploring new places.

G. B. Miller said...

I don't do video games but I definitely understand your point.

I had to re-write the ending to my recently sold novel because the acquiring pointed out (correctly I might add) that the original ending would result in having a lot of readers, who after having invested time and energy in the novel, only to have an ending in which the main character dies, understandably upset.

Liane Spicer said...

The closest I've come to gaming was watching over my son's shoulder while he played a sniper game years ago, but I see your point about building to a logical ending. I've read books where the end twists just did not add up. The anger of the ME3 gamers is understandable.

GB Miller, I've read great novels where the main character dies. Must the 'Hollywood effect' extend to novels too? But the editor knows best, right?