Author Topic: Mass Effect - Why changing narrative tone is bad.  (Read 1170 times)

Clockwork

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Mass Effect - Why changing narrative tone is bad.
« on: July 08, 2016, 11:11:57 AM »

EDIT: Was posted in what video games are you playing? but decided to move it because it didn't answer that question and was a rant.

Aaaaaand I remember why ME3 sucks. All that goddamn abstraction. First two games: great, subtle allegory; good, solid themes; grounded in science first then mythos. Third game: blatant religious symbolism everywhere, mythos heavy, leaves allegory for abstracts which has it's place in media but for portugals sake doesn't do any favours here whatsoever.

Completely changed the narrative tone in a series. Who does that?

The allegory in the first two was just the right balance of saying something without preaching it. The general messages are that everyone deserves a second chance, co-operation without losing individuality is great and all lives matter. Fine. As you all know I'm not hugely into this type of preachy thing but in ME it was at least really well disguised, it all fit into the lore and the character nicely, everything worked and I got subtly influenced into becoming a better human. It asked questions like 'is death better than being brainwashed?', 'what is self-determination?', 'how much can we interfere with nature?', 'how far should we push science?'. All those kinds of sci-fi classics that are asked and left for the person to make a choice. Unfortunately they just shy away from greatness with assigning a morality value to these choices but still, it tried and got closer to really asking you these questions than any other medium imo by forcing you to choose what you believe (or what the person you're playing believes) to advance the game.


ME3 just throws all that out the window. It drops the allegory and just preaches. Not only that but it preaches armadillo which goes against the themes of the first two: give up individuality for peace, pro-life bs, modifying humans is wrong etc. Then it gets abstract. The game is now about how the PC represents the prodigal son and the story is about how all along you've been guiding the universe either with severity or virtue (but nothing in between) to a utopia. Your guilt is depicted in dreams as running through a burning forest in slo-mo chasing after a child you saw die. I didn't give two armadillos about this kid. Spoke one line to him and all of a sudden apparently I'm supposed to care specifically about that kid rather than the other billions of people dying, including friends, during the course of the game? It's portugaling stupid.


That aside. Even possibly forgiving that, because I really hate that kind of armadillo when it's obvious so I'm biased against it, objectively the storytelling is worse. As I'll explain I guess. Because this post isn't long enough already.


The first two set up a Trek-like sci-fi epic so well. The first game created a universe, there was the pseudo-science hallmark of the genre, there were various humanoid and non-humanoid aliens, there was backstory narrative for the events happening during the timeframe of the game and there was a very solid lore/fictional history.


It created a perfect foundation from which to flesh out specifics of the current timeline, important events and how the universes peoples react on a more studied look in ME2. A lot of people criticise ME2 for not moving on the Shepard story but that's not the purpose of that game. The purpose is to create more personality for the current timeframe. At this moment in time in the ME universe while you're playing as Shepard: colonies are being founded, one race is gearing up for war, another is trying to consolidate, people are being experimented on by an organisation, loads of other armadillo. It runs the gamut of what's happening around this time. Again, it's more setup for an epic: it's building a framework so that the real meat of the story can be told without going over what is currently happening or what the universe is like.


Then the third game comes along with the story and the way it's told differs so greatly from the other two games that, style-wise, it's unrecognisable. It's not even that it doesn't use the foundation that's created, because it does. The backstory is told very briefly, very thinly in broad strokes, same with the tone of the universe: Krogan are brutish, Turians are militaristic (which on a racial level is accurate-ish but individually doesn't have to be the case at all). Great. But then a lot of the control over your characters personality is taken away, much fewer dialogue choices even when it's painfully obvious there really needed to be at least one other option. The story changes from specific arcs to an epic like it should but in doing so, loses so much of what made the first two games great. The player agency. Where previously there was choice in motivation now there is only choice in outcome which makes it feel so shallow.


So I get to the divisive ending which had much furore about it at the time. The abstract gets even more nauseating - only by the sacrifice of the prodigal son can there be utopia. And there are three options left to the player, literally a left, middle and right path. Left is control - shape the galaxy according to what you believe, middle is absolute peace at the cost of all individuality and right is destroy - break conventions to allow everyone to self-determine leaving the good with the bad and the threat that AI's will probably eventually wipe out organics. There's no room for motivation or finesse, there's the big sci-fi question - great but it's presented in such a way that leaves no room for context. How precisely is that control, am I god now? What does that even mean? Does this loss of individuality mean that everyone is exactly the same or is it more general, like everyone sharing DNA or something? And the first two options preclude any more games being set after these events.


Fortunately ME3 is still very much playable thanks to the great third person combat. But it's such a shame that what could have been the best single sci-fi story ever told fell short.
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WarpDogsVG

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Re: Mass Effect - Why changing narrative tone is bad.
« Reply #1 on: July 10, 2017, 10:12:49 PM »
I totally agree with your points. I think the biggest weakness in storytelling in games is that nobody seems to know how to up the stakes without ratcheting it up to 11 and making it about messiahs and destiny and god and all this other nonsense

It's especially frustrating because, as you say, ME1 and even ME2 completely nailed it. There were, in a sense, small stories, and Shepard was mostly an above-average leader that was in the right place at the right time.

Shepard was never more than just a dude, so to transform him into this messiah figure that was given the power and authority to determine the fate of the entire universe was absurd and unearned enough, but then the choices themselves...jesus. It's like the writers each took an Introduction to Philosophy class and boiled away any scraps of nuance they had leftover
« Last Edit: July 10, 2017, 10:18:52 PM by WarpDogsVG »

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Clockwork

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Re: Mass Effect - Why changing narrative tone is bad.
« Reply #2 on: July 11, 2017, 01:17:43 PM »
Thanks for the feedback! You're totally right in how they bump him up from human to god-tier in such a ham-fisted way. Completely jarring experience.
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Jubal

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Re: Mass Effect - Why changing narrative tone is bad.
« Reply #3 on: July 11, 2017, 11:55:34 PM »
Yeah, not played ME but I dislike the tendency to randomly god-tier people. Most media do it though, I guess it's seen as an easy way to ratchet up the pressure of what's going on without having to resort to actually writing good narrative reasons?
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