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Leading The Shepard

…or ‘What a hugely successful videogame series can learn from a TV show cancelled during its first season.’

There’s constant discussion on how videogames can learn from films or how games such as Uncharted 2 are ‘just like films!’ In terms of writing, at least, I feel that idea is a little misguided.

Videogames should be learning a few tricks from television. I’m going to explain how and why…

NOTICE: In this article I’m going to talk about a couple of things dear to me: Firefly and Mass Effect. So consider this a SPOILER SPOILER ARGH ARGH SPOILER WARNING. As well as the usual ‘COME ON WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU THESE THINGS ARE GREAT’ supplement.

I should start off by explaining that I have chosen these as examples for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they are well-written and it is possible to draw certain comparisons between them; being that they’re both science-fiction/science-fantasy and about a crew of people on a ship. Secondly, because of their scope, they make for good examples across a variety of topics. And, to make it clear: I’m not claiming Firefly is the only TV series to serve as a good reference, nor is it perfect. Additionally, I’m not out to bash (or further praise) a game series that many people (myself included) love, nor am I going to complain (as many have before) that Fox are stupid for cancelling such a great show, and that more people should see it. But I am saying that if you haven’t seen or played either, this article may not make a lot of sense…

As we’re probably all aware, there is a marked difference between games and films. One particular distinction being length. A lot of modern games can last from about 8-10 hours right up to the 50-60 mark whereas films don’t usually last beyond 2 hours (outside of special editions, etc.). Rarely can a film-style story sustain such a long game as well as be considered ‘well-paced’; something many games seem to struggle with.

The very root of this problem lies in the gameplay itself. I believe story and gameplay should be treated equally and woven together rather than separated. Clearly, this isn’t to say all games that eschew a narrative/story are bad; just that, perhaps, those which include one (particularly RPGs) could be better.

Anyway, onto the writing itself.

What makes a memorable film/game/TV show/book? The characters. That’s why people come back to a chosen series: they love the characters. People make lists of the greatest ones, they dress up as them, they quote them. Even a show like Top Gear in the UK, essentially a programme about cars, adapted its format to a trio of presenters; each with their own personality and role within this group of ‘naughty schoolboys’. It’s also important to note that they share a lot of time in the main studio rather than just presenting separate segments. And the show is the better for it; seeing a massive surge in popularity, even among women (I have no facts/figures to back this up, just common knowledge…).

What does this mean for games? Give your world some personality. Create characters we care about and want to see more of. It doesn’t matter if the main character’s a stand-in for the player; everyone around them should at least be interesting. Which is an important thing to point out. You don’t necessarily have to love or even like a character, but you have to give a damn about what they’re doing. Even an antagonist needs to be good fun to watch, or even a little sympathetic.

A lot of games do this already but there are still areas this could improve. This is where I start talking about Firefly…

Joss Whedon’s approach to developing a show, as he has stated, is to create a ‘family’. You can see this in Buffy and Angel before it. The idea is to have the characters fit particular archetypes, which helps define the basic relationships between them. In some ways, Kaylee is the ‘child’ of the Serenity crew (River, obviously being another), while Jayne occasionally seems almost like her protective older brother; even if they’re not always this way with everyone else (Jayne is usually pretty selfish) . It demonstrates a complexity which we can all recognise within ourselves.

It also helps to give a more realistic sense of how a crew of people interact. The Firefly crew may split off into smaller groups or couples, or spend a lot of time alone like Inara, but they will usually gather round the dinner table or get together when the time calls for it. In these moments, we can gain a better understanding of who they are.

In terms of Mass Effect 2, from herein referred to as ME2, this element feels like it’s missing. The characters all inhabit separate ‘rooms’ on the ship and only during certain meetings in the Comms Room do they ever get together, and never the whole crew. If not for the last mission, I feel half my team wouldn’t realise the other existed. I understand getting all your game characters interacting on quite so many levels is tricky but that’s where ME2 takes a small step back from the first. While the elevator loading sections could be annoying, at least it usually meant a little more conversation between your party members, letting their character shine through. Like here:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOg-nLWe71w]

It’s nice when your characters have more incidental and unique dialogue linked to situations: a rare ME2 example, rather than simply cycling through similar lines when an opportunity presents itself. Although, it is worth recognising that the characters bring their own individual slant to the dialogue.

This is perhaps a clear display of ME2’s ‘gameness’ (is that a word?). While it has a large cast of main characters, this feels more like giving players a substantial enough selection from which to choose their favourite companions (not in the Firefly sense!) in terms of character archetypes and combat functionality. For example, while Samara and Jack both offer powerful biotic abilities, they are markedly different characters; thus giving players a more clear-cut choice between them. In contrast, if Malcolm Reynolds needs muscle to back him up, he only has Zoe and the volatile Jayne. Which is also partly true of ME1, as each individual team member (of the game’s possible six) had their own unique blend of skills, and the party selection screen would put an emphasis on what areas you were covering: Biotic, Tech and Combat ‘Strength’. If you were playing an Adept, for example, it might not make much sense to take both Kaiden and Liara with you.

Which leads onto the significance of relationships again. In Firefly, Mal and Zoe are old war buddies, who can rely on each other; usually, wherever Mal goes, she follows. In ME2, Shepard is free to pick who accompanies him (although, with a restriction of only two team members). While it’s clear that Shepard is very much in charge, I would presume at least one member from Cerberus would want to be keeping an eye on him.

A noticeable omission is that the characters don’t always bring texture to the situation. In ME1, you could rely on party members like Garrus and Tali for handling the technical aspects; which are completely absent in ME2, with Shepard handling hacking and such, regardless of skillset. But this extends into the actual story-telling across both games. Throughout ME2, you are constantly recruiting new team members, but they don’t generally add much beyond their combat skills. Grunt isn’t used to intimidate people, nor do others suggest certain tactical approaches or advice.

Not that character influence is completely absent. It’s actually a large part, with each team-member taking the spotlight during their own loyalty missions. However, these are more like the special single-character-centric episodes of a TV series (something akin to ‘Jaynestown’ from Firefly) that don’t leave a lasting impression throughout the story rather than fully-developed character arcs. Again, this is tough for a game to achieve, particularly one with a rather large cast. Clearly, Shepard’s crew are markedly different to a group of outlaws, and all are geared towards combat, but the relationships and conflicts should still be there. Even if subtle, ME1 had a bit of ongoing tension between Garrus and Wrex; the latter is even willing to turn on you at a critical point, or go against your decisions (even if you choose to spare the corrupt Chora’s Den owner, Fist, when you have him cornered, Wrex will kill him if present as a party member).

ME2 does have such moments but they’re few and far between. The disagreements between Jack and Miranda or Legion and Tali make for interesting conflicts but they’re one-time-only; they never make a reappearance or leave any underlying tension. If you fail to successfully resolve the situations they will only have serious repercussions in the final mission, and never in perceptible ways; your crewmate’s loyalty is on a switch, on/off, and the related result is surviving or dying a scripted impersonal death. Again, it’s hard to escape the ‘gameness’ but, since these are scripted conflicts, the results could’ve been tailored more to the characters.

This feeling extends into the romantic relationships as well. A main component of many a television series is ‘URST’ or ‘Unresolved Sexual Tension’ (hey, I didn’t make up the acronym. I would’ve gone for ‘Love and Unresolved Sexual Tension’ aka. LUST). This is the central romantic relationship that has a back and forth of ‘will they, won’t they?’ You can see this in a lot of popular shows: Maddie and David in Moonlighting (ask your parents); Niles and Daphne in Frasier; Mulder and Scully in X-Files. In Firefly’s case there are two such relationships: Kaylee and Simon, and Mal and Inara.

Of course, ME2 is more about choice over setting defined romantic relationships; but I feel it would benefit from something a bit more dynamic than remembering to chat (and be nice!) to your love interest after each mission. The game’s possible romantic partners don’t even mind if you’re courting all of them, as long as you settle on one before it’s time to take the relationship ‘further’; which is always, in typically filmic fashion, during the calm before the storm, i.e. right before the last mission. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect so much of videogames, but as a developer that has included romance in all its modern RPGs, BioWare should be looking to further expand on what they already have.

For Firefly, the on/off balance in these relationships is well-crafted, and creates interesting situations. The episode ‘Shindig’ puts an emphasis on the disparity between Mal and Inara as well as their own complexities. This is best demonstrated with how out of place Mal and Kaylee seem at a glamorous dance and, where in attempting to defend Inara’s honour, Mal unwittingly finds himself initiating a duel by sword (“A swhat?”). Their bickering reveals that Mal makes a distinction between Inara and her profession, only insulting the latter, and how she really doesn’t need anyone sticking up for her. They’re constantly sparring, yet you can see Inara upset during ‘Heart of Gold’, when she discovers Mal has slept with Nandi, an old Companion-trained friend of hers and someone with whom Mal shares a stubborn spirit. Although Inara has stated that, as a Companion, she views sex in a non-puritanical way, she is visibly hurt by this, and later developments (with Nandi’s death proving a similar fate may await Mal and his crew) spark her decision to actually leave the ship.

This is in stark contrast to ME2 where there is little intrigue or build-up in most of the relationships; the other characters all gradually divulge their back stories or rapidly change their impressions of you/one another. It helps you engage with them, but it leaves out any mystery or subtlety. Take this exchange between Mal and Shepherd Book in Serenity (I know, I know. Not TV) as they discuss Alliance military tactics:

‘It’s of interest of me how much you seem to know about that world.’

‘I wasn’t born a Shepherd, Mal’

‘Have to tell me about that sometime.’

‘No, I don’t.’

And we never find out his past (well, until this was released). We get a sense of who he is in the way he talks and acts; we don’t need his backstory spelled out for us. Also, while not especially relevant to Mass Effect, you’ll notice that, despite their prior relationship and the stylistic slant, the characters never speak plainly. BioWare already have a handle on people’s various and unique ways of speaking (HK-47 or Mordin, for example) and in Mass Effect’s defence, the more they can leave ‘blank’ about Shepard, the better. Regardless, here, in requesting information the dialogue is not ‘What can you tell me about the guy who’s after us?’ or ‘How come you know so much about this?’ Even in a simple exchange the dialogue feels natural and interesting, as well as speaking volumes about the characters. And that’s something many other games could learn from.

Going back, this sense of ambiguity is certainly lacking in ME2.

“I’d rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for five seconds.”

The above quote is from Jimmy McGovern, famed television writer (and he has a few awards to show for it), and what he means is that he’d prefer to know less about what is happening if it means avoiding things being over-explained, especially with clunky dialogue (or mission briefing screens). ME2 isn’t exactly guilty of poorly-delivered exposition, but it could do with better presentation of its story. Instead, the suicide mission concept was put right upfront before the game even began; then there’s the back of the box which reads ‘They say it’s a suicide mission. PROVE THEM WRONG’ as well as an in-game achievement for keeping everyone alive. The film follow-up to Firefly, Serenity, is comparable to the final act of ME2 but they didn’t put an emphasis on this aspect, enabling the consequences to be far more surprising and emotionally impactful.

A lot of people will agree that, narratively-speaking, ME2 does not hold up to quality of the first game. Obviously, ME1 benefitted from its novelty as players were let loose on the galaxy for the first time, but it also contained an intriguing and substantial central story with the odd twist and turn along the way. ME2’s main plot is quite conventional and minimal in comparison, with few surprises. This is due to the change in emphasis from a galaxy-saving plot to assembling a team for a ‘suicide’ mission. The problem is that the recruiting element is mostly divorced from the driving narrative. Clearly, you’re recruiting people for the final mission but, in a sense, you were doing that during ME1. The difference being that ME1 did it much more organically.

In ME1, you ‘acquired’ squadmates as you went. Ashley is introduced during your first mission as the only survivor during an attack, much like Jacob on the Lazarus Research Station in ME2, and during your initial visit to the Citadel, you unite with Garrus, Tali and Wrex under various circumstances but all related to the main story. It feels more natural than receiving emails and following galaxy map markers, and makes the relationships much more significant than purposely assembling a squad. Compare this to ‘Out of Gas’ in Firefly where you see, via flashbacks, the various crew members either being recruited, bribed or being left no other option but to join; thus informing their relationships down the line (if Jayne can be bought, what’s to stop someone offering a higher price?).

In retrospect, it might have been wiser for ME2 to have a smaller cast of characters and put greater emphasis on a main plot that more directly involves them. Instead of all the characters magically having an individual loyalty mission during their time with your crew, certain aspects could test their relationship to you and the others (like Wrex on Virmire in ME1 and the possible ways the situation may resolve). Or even take ‘War Stories’ as an example, where Wash demands to go on a mission instead of Zoe; throw in more spontaneity and variety that stems from the main characters. Even ‘Jaynestown’ was connected to a job and not a deliberate detour the crew chose to take.

Don’t make players scan planets for resources in order to get upgrades; incorporate the upgrades, or the location of a mother lode of resources, into actual missions, possibly even have their retrieval hinge on characters and their loyalty. If you’re going to have Shepard working for the morally-questionable Cerberus, include a bit more of the shady dealings. For example, what if the crew were to steal technology from a given alien race/organisation for the good of the mission but at the chagrin of certain party members? ME2’s strength lies in the fiction of its universe and its well-written characters; I feel it would be better to try and focus on these and marry them to the plot rather than making the majority of the game feel a little like ‘busywork’. Of course, it doesn’t help that there is someone else (The Illusive Man) actually guiding your moves rather than the story being led by characters, but at least the player gets a little control over where they go.

This all links back to what I said in the beginning about structure. Many games try and stretch out a main plot whereas smaller arcs connected to a larger one would probably work better. In Firefly, the plight of Simon and River is the long-term arc (prematurely brought to the forefront for the film) while the various heists and schemes along the way make up the majority of the other stories. ME2 already has this to an extent, with the fight against the Reapers as the main threat and the recruitment and loyalty missions serving as mini-arcs. It helps that aquiring some team members directly and overtly aids the cause; Mordin develops a counter-measure against Collector seeker swarms as well as ‘works’ in the research lab, presumably to enable team upgrades. It is only the side missions that feel a bit superfluous when the main goal is so prominent in the game.

In conclusion, I’m not saying these are all direct changes that need to be made to the Mass Effect franchise (although, I would argue they’re damn good suggestions). It’s quite possible BioWare had already considered including several of these elements but, ultimately, opted for what would make a better game; the success of which speaks for itself. I’m also aware a few of the better games out there already have a sense of these, but I do hope some of the areas I’ve touched upon will be incorporated by game developers looking to improve their story-telling.

So, in future, we can hopefully expect more: interesting characters that we at least empathise with; naturalistic dialogue suited to these characters; complex, dynamic relationships (rivalries and romances included); cohesive stories tied to characters. Let’s see it happen!

One Comment

  1. Shedlock says:

    Great analysis. Great point on ME2’s lack of ‘family’ relationships between the characters- though it’s worth noting that the supporting cast behind each character usually adds up to ‘family’, be it Thane’s son, the Justicar’s daughter, etc. The background story seems to be what ME2 is all about, not the interactable, surface experience of the drama.