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Saturday, March 17, 2012

How Endings can ruin everything OR Why ME3 is the biggest disappointment ever OR Angry Nerd Mode: Activated

So, some of you may have heard about this game series called Mass Effect.  If you haven't here's the short version: it's a really well-done sci-fi space opera series that's captivated millions of people worldwide for about 5 years now.  The final game in the trilogy came out a few weeks ago, and pretty much everybody agrees that the game is awesome....until the very end.

Now, before you go on, here's your warning:


All right.  I wanted to talk about this, not just in the context of one truly horrible example, but of endings in general, how important they are in capping off an audience's experience, and how they need to fit in thematically.  

The ME series is great, well-written, engaging, and emotional, but high-brow art it is not.  It is a very excellent space story about aliens and killer robots and character development, growth, redemption, sacrifice, and more.  It is not 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It is not a psychological mind-screw.  It's a straight-forward narrative with lots of shooting and explosions and sex in it.

But the ending cocks all that fun up by trying to be different.  It presents a series of incomprehensible events that make zero sense, leave gaping plot holes, and devalue any and all personal choices a character has made up to this point.  Many players have spent the last 5 years playing their Commander Shepard (ME's protagonist), making their choices, and having those choices matter in the sequels.  ME is notable for it's use of choice and consequence, and is one of the major differing points between traditional story-telling modes.

In something like a book or a film (or even a lot of video games!) the audience must merely sit and watch.  As they are passive, watching the events unfold, there is less emotional investment.  In a game, especially one so heavily focused on choice and consequence as ME, the audience is active, and no longer just an audience, but a driving force in the course of the narrative.  We want our decisions to matter.

But in the ending, you are presented with a maximum of three choices, and these choices are exactly the same no matter what you have done prior to this.  Have you saved an entire species of aliens, or destroyed them?  Have you been a paragon of virtue or a renegade of merciless destruction?  It literally does not matter.  You will be given the same options as someone who made dramatically different choices than you.

The events that follow which of the three decisions (each of which are nearly identical themselves, mostly featuring a cosmetic change of what type of energy is unleashed on the galaxy: orange, blue, or green) are even more inexplicable.  A character is seen fleeing from the game's major conflict, an action which goes against everything we know about his motivations and personalities.  We know this character would fight to the death, but they are inexplicably fleeing.  Worse, he's somehow picked up my friends, who last I checked, were fighting on the ground.  How did they get in the spaceship?  why did they leave the battle? How did they leave the battle?  

There are nothing but plot holes and messy mistakes, which I won't get into here.  Suffice it to say, it's a lazy, emotionally disappointing ending.  And it ruins the rest of the game, if not the series.  The question is how?  How could ten minutes of bad writing (even truly awful writing) spoil dozens of hours of otherwise good writing?

Invalidation and frustration.

Any ending that makes the previous time spent getting there invalid ruins the whole thing.  The best example of this is the "It was all a dream," ending that shitty writers seem to love so much.  By saying the events an audience was emotionally invested in were all a dream, you're saying it wasn't real, and if it wasn't real, it had no consequences, so it didn't matter.  It was a brain fart.  The events in ME3 were real, but by taking away the consequences of previous actions, the writers invalidated those actions.  They were meaningless, because there was no emotional payoff for them, good or bad.

And frustrated is the last thing you want an audience to be at the end of a story.  Sad is perfectly fine.  Happy is great.  Wondering what happens next is awesome.  Confused or  Avoid those.  Those two mean that you as a writer have not done your job.  If your audience is confused, you have failed to help them understand.  If they are frustrated, you have failed to give them the emotional release or catharsis they require at the end.  

Neither of these two things have ANYTHING to do with if an ending is Disneyland Happy or Gulag Sad.  A sad ending can provide just as much (maybe even more if somebody's crying!) emotional satisfaction and understanding as a happy one.  However a confusing, frustrating ending cannot.

Let's look at The Grey with Liam Neeson.  Spoilers ahead 'cause I'm gonna talk about the ending, duh.  The Grey is a very bleak film about survival in the frozen wilds, about men hunted by ferocious animals and the cold grip of nature itself.  It is NOT a happy movie.  It's about the struggle to survive, to fight, to live in the face of horror and despair, to not give up.  Throughout the movie, Liam is stalked by wolves, including the Alpha, the head honcho of the vicious creatures.  At the end, Liam is face-to-face with the creature and his pack: impossible odds.  His death seems certain.

But then he tapes a knife to his hand, arms himself with broken glass bottles, and stares the wolf in the face, ready to go.  The music swells and the movie ends.  We don't know if he lived or died.  But that's okay, because the big question was answered: Will Liam give up and die, or will he fight, even in the face of hopelessness?  He decided to fight.  We achieved an emotional release because Liam made a decision that was consistent with the feel and themes of the movie.  

If this had been like the ME3 ending, it would have ended right before Liam made a choice, and the audience would be left holding the ball.  The whole build up to this confrontation and whether the character chooses to lie down and die or fight would be pointless because the question wouldn't be addressed in a satisfying manner.

ME3 fails so completely because it ignores the players' decisions, their investment, and it ignores its own story.  It forgets about the characters its developed, the events that have unfolded, and minimizes everything to three nonsensical, stupid, nearly identical choices.  It betrays itself as much as the player.  And the real tragedy is that it was so close to being such a great story.

Too bad, ME3.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Genre Talk: Dreaming About Fantasy Part 4

Now we're going to talk about a major fantasy idea that also appears quite a bit in sci-fi as well.  It's one of the things I love about fantasy the most:

NUMBER FOUR: Exploration

Any fantasy book you pick up is almost guaranteed to have some kind of running theme of exploration and/or discovery.  High fantasy typically involves the more traditional expectation of this: crossing big mountains and rolling fields, delving into deep caves, uncovering old secrets in mystic forests, etc.  Urban fantasy more often deals with the discovery of fantastical elements in general, and the exploration of how deep the rabbit hole goes.

So there's physical exploration of the world (road trip!) and mental exploration of the fantastic (magic is real?!). So let's look at Final Fantasy 6 for our "physical" exploration and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere for our "mental" exploration.

In FF6, it's stated from the legendary opening movie that magic is real and pretty much everybody knows about it.  gods are real too (or were) and most everybody knows about them too.  The exploration comes from literally exploring the physical world, from forgotten islands to a ruined landscape.  Things are uncovered in the plot as well, but you're trekking across an entire planet the whole time, hopping from one local to the next.

High Fantasy loves this.  Lord of the Rings takes you from the peaceful Shire to the blasted landscape of Mordor.  The Sword of Shannara has the reader traveling from boggy swamps to ancient fortresses.  Exploring the world, showing it off, letting the reader see new landscapes, is one of the most fun things about fantasy.  This is one part of world-building, which I'll talk about later, and is essential to any sort of fantasy.

Now, in Neverwhere the sense of discovery is centered more on the fact that magical stuff exists at all.  In the TV series, Richard Mayhew discovers the world of London Below: a hidden society beneath London (fancy that!) that has all sorts of whimsical things and goings on.  Now, while Richard does travel around, his sense of wonderment stems mostly from his discovery of things he previously thought impossible, as opposed to just the cool scenery (though there is that too).  His exploration is of the new perspective he has gained since finding out that things like magical markets and people who can travel through magic doors are real.

Now, both FF6 and Neverwhere incorporate both physical and mental exploration (most fantasy stories do), they just do one significantly more than the other.  Fantasy stories that usually combine both in equal measure are "portal" stories, where the main character goes from our world to another (like in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe).  And that's another discussion all by itself.    

Monday, March 12, 2012

Censoring YA: When it's Good and When it's Bad

For those of you that don't know, YA is short hand for Young Adult Literature.  YA lit covers any book written for older teens, say 14-17ish.  These aren't books you read in high school per se (I read Hamlet, The Things They Carried, The Awakening, and a bunch of other adult books in high school that were definitely NOT YA), or even necessarily books that feature teenagers (though most all YA books do of course) but novels directed at kids in their late teens.

Now, the problem with some YA books (or Middle Grade (MG) books) is that taboo topics pop up.  Like sex, drugs, violence, etc.  Now these are things teenagers deal with, and it can be comforting for an author to address these topics in a story.  It lets them know they're not alone, that some of these things are normal, and that they can get better.  But sometimes authors go overboard and descend into gratuity, sensationalism, and absurdity.  

So then, when is censorship in YA okay?  The answer is never.  Censorship in literature is never okay.  

"But Justin!  Then gratuitous sex and all that other stuff will run rampant!"  You might say.  No it won't, because gratuitous things are never okay either.

So now you might be confused.  It's okay, it's actually super simple.  If sex is important to a YA story, if sex is essential to the plot and characters, then it isn't gratuitous.  And if it isn't gratuitous, it shouldn't be censored.

If however, the sex in the story is meaningless, if it does nothing to advance the story or define a character, than it IS gratuitous, and shouldn't be in the story anyway, making censorship irrelevant.  

See?  Easy.  

Now, let's takke a look at an example.  Here we have Teach Me by R.A. Nelson.  Teach Me is the story of a girl, Nine, who falls for and has an affair with her teacher, the hilariously named Richard Mann.  Now, there are a lot of horrible news stories about teachers diddling their underage students.  A book about how something like this happens is both repugnant and fascinating, especially to kids I'd imagine.

But Nelson kind of cops out of making things really interesting by holding off on the sex until the heroine is 18.  Why?  Was that an editor censoring Nelson's original manuscript, or Nelson censoring himself?  The real world isn't neat and tidy.  I've yet to hear the news story about the teacher who waited to start the affair until his or her charge was of age.  

This is what I'm taking about.  The characters' decisions to wait until Nine becomes nice and legal feels way too tidy and neat.  Am I really expected to believe a man (especially a Dick Mann) who is willing to risk his career, his future, his own adult relationships, is also going to be responsible and possess the self control to wait until the object of his desire is 18?

Likewise, is Nelson really expecting me to believe that Nine, a hormonally charged teenager, can restrain herself from her hunky English teacher until she is allowed to legally buy smokes?  That's bullshit.  It smells like censorship.  and furthermore, it cuts off a lot of interesting ethical dilemmas.  It makes the story too neat.  It makes Dick Mann too easy to forgive and excuse what is an otherwise deplorable choice.  

Comepare this to S.E. Hinton's classic The Outsiders.  By today's standards, The Outsiders seems pretty tame, but it was some serious shit back in the day.  Kids from broken homes, gang violence, sexual desire, murder, all in a time when that sort of stuff just wasn't talked about.  But all of it built up the characters, all of it moved the story forward, all of it touched the reader, and all of it was real.  It was ugly and sad but it mattered and it was true.  It's even more poignant because when Hinton wrote it, she was a teen herself.  

The Outsiders was great because it didn't censor itself.  It didn't try to makes things neat.  Teach Me is a disappointment because it does.

So never censor, and never be gratuitous, and everything will work out great.   

Genre Talk: Dreaming About Fantasy Part 3

While this is in no way specific to fantasy, it is a major part of damn near every fantasy story.  I'm speaking of course, about 


The quest is by no means specific to fantasy, but it is found there more often than in other genres.  I'm using the term "Quest" instead of something like mission or journey because quest sounds more appropriate, and because it has its routes in medieval romance where a knight goes out to pursue something (a lady, a dragon, etc).  It also involves travel, and fantasy stories usually love to go exploring.  But that's another entry.

So let's look at a couple types of quests.  First up is a classic: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  In it, the Pevensie siblings find a magic wardrobe that transports them to Narnia, a big fantasyland that's seen better days.  Once there, they journey across ice-covered wastes to the camp of Aslan, to do battle with the evil White Queen.

Now, the quest portion is set off pretty quickly: Get to Aslan and once there, help defeat the Queen.  The most famous of Lewis's classic Narnia books is very straightforward, partially because it's for children, and partially because it's a very simple example of what I'll call the "Vanilla Quest": go here, do this, go home.  It's also notable for that last bit: "go home."  Not all quests have that, but most do.  Going home is sometimes just important to the quest as leaving home is.  But for vanilla quests, the outcome and goal are known straight out of the gate.  Stories like Lord of the Rings (destroy this ring) by Tolkien and Sword of Shannara (get this sword and slay that dude) by Brooks are also good examples.

Which brings me to the next example: China Mieville's Perdido Street Station.  Now, this is not a classic quest.  In fact, the whole of it takes place in the confines of a single city (and briefly, Hell), but the characters crawl all over that city, and it's more fleshed out and alive than entire worlds other authors have written.  The quest involves one fat scientist, Isaac Grimnebulin, and a varied cast of others trying to save the city from soul-sucking monsters called slake-moths.  It's actually quite a bit more involved than that, and really very brilliant, but I'm abbreviating here.

The quest in Perdido is what I'll call the "Uncovered Quest": things are not clear from the beginning, and it isn't until much later that the true goal is discovered.  Isaac doesn't start off knowing about the monsters in his city: he's a scientist who wants nothing more than to work on his theories and shag his insectile girlfriend.  The quest is born out of necessity and to save his own ass.  And in the end, not everybody can go home again.  home is gone.  Other stories that feature indistinct goals at first are Imajica (journey of self-discovery becomes something waaaay bigger) by Clive Barker and one of my favorite games ever, Chrono Trigger (quest to save a princess becomes a mission to save all of time and space).

Now, there's lots of types of different quests based on scale (save the princess vs. save all of reality) and other things, but these are the two basic types I've always sorted everything into.  Neither is strictly better or worse than the other, it just depends on how they're executed.

That's it for this very short entry.  

Next up is Exploration.