Monday, April 9, 2012

Suspension of disbelief and the challenges face by the Extended Cut DLC

First, I want to state the obvious. Video games aren’t real. I’ll also add “movies aren’t real”, “books aren’t real” or even “fiction by definition isn’t real”

No, I’m not going to write an post about why people shouldn’t get upset over a video game or story and that people who do have no lives.

The reason why I point this out is that recognising this is probably one of the most important factors in storytelling. Things that are dramatic in real life are simply not that interesting when presented in fiction.

A bomb that kills 20-30 people in real life would be emotionally moving if we see the impact on TV because we know that these people do exist. A bomb that blows up an entire planet and wipe out a civilization in fiction can be greeted with a yawn because people know it isn’t real. People dying in fiction are just pixels on the screen (video game), extras pretending to die (movies) or letters written on a page (books). Why should I care about a fake civilization that isn’t real die? That is the challenge that all fiction writers have to overcome.

A story that is primary event driven that attempts to hook the audience by relying on them to react to the event as they would if it happen in real life will seldom be emotionally gripping. Have a villain attempting to wipe out organic life and then having the hero stop them normally reads like a generic action movie. It could be entertaining if the action scenes are well crafted or in a video game if the gameplay is excellent but it can never really be emotionally gripping because people know it isn't real and doesn't exist.

Nevertheless despite the fact that fiction isn’t real, so many people are emotionally invested into works of fiction. So how do writers make a person care about what happens on the screen and be emotionally invested on something that isn’t real?

They achieve this by writing believable and likeable characters. If you have a character with a flesh out and develop personality that you could imagine could exist in real life and you could relate to. If that character is likeable then you develop an emotional connection to that character because that character seems real. The writers will ended up creating an illusion of reality and people ended up suspending their disbelief.  So why should people care about the villain threatening to destroy organic life in the universe? People should care because the characters that you develop an emotional connection to care about it.

Of course the more advance writers can create a situation where you can care about the surroundings and the general universe as a whole. After all a person develops an attachment to a location and the place they live in in real life and that can be imitated in fiction as well. They achieve this by creating scope by giving the illusion that there is a living and breathing universe beyond the lives of the characters. From Mass Effect point of view, that’s why when you go to the citadel you hear people chatting about their personal experience to the reaper invasion and you get involve in side-quest that don’t advance the main plot. That’s why in all of the planets you hear soldiers talking about their experience and their suffering and their own story. This is there to create an illusion that all those people you see in the universe has their own lives and their own story to tell. So we care if Palaven gets wiped out because we have been on Palaven and we see that there are people their (I guess you can call it mini-characters) with their own story to tell.  Of course this bond would probably be weaker than the bond people have to the main character but it helps increase the emotional attachment people have to the general world.

This leads to an important point; I don’t really cares about sentient life or the fact that people will survive 1000 years from now. I care about the character that I emotionally invested in and the world that I helped to save and the troops that I gather. The reaper threats is there to make the character care and be motivated to advance the plot but the characters are there so the audience care about the plot. It is of my belief that the plot isn't that important by itself and is only important when filtered through the characters motivation.

This leads to the problem with the ending. You make all these choices and none of the choices we see how it impacted on the characters or the troops that we gathered or the world that we are trying to save. Ok we saved the galaxy and the cycle are broken saving future races 50,000 years in the future and that humanity may exist long time in the future but like I mention before, that isn’t real because we never developed an emotional connection with the distant future, what is real is the universe here and now which is the universe where we were a part of for the entire Mass Effect series. So what happen to all the characters that we grow fond of and how do they adjust in a post-reaper world? We don’t really know apart from them landing in a jungle planet.

What happen to all the civilizations that we tried to save? Considering that the galaxy left with the mass relay destroyed stranding the fleet and putting a lot of current civilization and current crew in jeopardy. It’s no wonder why people who disliked the ending felt empty when the game ended because what else can you feel when you don’t see the choice impact on the universe you care about it and the few choices you do see left the universe in a pretty bleak state. The ending ignored all the things that made us suspend our disbelief and become immersed in this universe.

I do believe that this area could be something that the Extended Cut DLC could resolve. The challenge here is to connect the choices you make at the end with the consequence your choices have on the characters that made you interest in the franchise in the first place and the current universe that you been trying to save. The three endings of synthesis, control and destroy will have drastically different effects on the universe but we don’t see the difference in the original ending and a well made Extended Cut DLC could resolve that problem.

Here are the few questions that if answered could create the necessary resolution to the series:

• So we have Shepard dying in most of the ending. How did the death affect the rest of the crew and how did it affect your love interest?

• How did the combining synthetic and organic life improve anything and how does that affect the universe?

• What happen to the reapers in the control ending?

• How did the Quarians (and Tali) react to the Geth being destroyed after making their peace with them?

• How the current universe does moves on with the mass relay being destroyed and how would the fleet return home?

• What did the crew of the Normandy do now that the conflict is over?

• What about all the choices you made throughout the series, how did that play out on the galaxy?

It will be a tough job but I do believe that it is achievable for the Extended Cut DLC to resolve some of these issues. A few cutscenes that explain some of this mystery, a funeral scene of Shepard with the crew reacting to your death but have hope for a new future that Shepard sacrifice allows, a cutscene showing the fate of the fleet and the fates of the major planets followed by a Dragon Age Origin like epilogue or an Alpha Protocol like voice narrated credit that goes through the consequences of your decision would do a great job fixing this aspect of the ending and give the series closure.

Of course lack of closure wasn’t the only problem that broke the suspension of disbelief.  The lack of a coherent narrative also did the same thing as well. If a story is told logically, the audience will continue to suspend their disbelief and maintain the illusion that this story is real and hence maintain an emotional connection to it. Gaps in the narrative and illogical plot points will generally break those illusions and having too many plot holes will eventually break down the idea that this story contains is a living and breathing universe to something that is merely pixels on a screen.

The extended cut has it job cut out for them but it isn’t impossible because remember that plot holes aren’t things that are impossible to explain but rather it is gaps in narrative. In Mass Effect 2, if Commander Shepard died in the intro and then we suddenly see him alive working with Cerberus, that is a plot hole. However if we see Shepard getting reconstructed by Cerberus then that is a plot point. Plot holes are merely plot points that don’t exist. Therefore it is theoretically possible for the extended cut DLC to be able to fill in the gaps of the narrative of most of the plot holes of the ending. I am pessimistic about how they are going to achieve this and it may well require a brilliant or a genius writer to be able to plug all the holes in the story but it can theoretically be done and therefore I have to defer judgement before the ending are released.

Things that are important for the extended cut to fill are:

• Clear up the mass relay explosion and make it clear that it is different from the Arrival DLC explosion. This would probably be easy to fix in my mind. Simply show the massive red/green/blue explosion (that unfortunately as shown in the ending cut scene to be big enough to spread to the entire solar system) to be harmless to all the major civilization and perhaps some dialogue about why this explosion is somehow different.

• Explain why all the squad mates left the battlefield on Earth and board the Normandy and explain why the Normandy left the battle.

• Explain how the surviving fleet are able to get home without the Mass Relay or show the galactic civilization rebuilding the relay after they were destroyed.

However there are some things are simply impossible to explain satisfactory like how the crucible manages to merge synthetic and organic life of every life form in the entire galaxy. People in science fiction are able to suspend their disbelief out of a lot of implausible or impossible things such as faster than life travel, artificial gravity, inertial dampeners, universal translators, sound in space, biotics and psychic powers etc. However people accept these fantastical things when the writers establish the rules of the universe early on and then stay consistent with those rules. People can either take it and suspend their belief early on or leave it and don’t follow the series. However when writers add something unbelievable out of the blue without appropriate foreshadowing or explanation then it just seems ridiculous. A lot of people dissatisfied with the ending simply dismiss the crucible appearing and merging synthetic and organic DNA to be ridiculous (as synthetic DNA doesn’t exist) and space magic and that’s fair enough. It wasn’t established early in the series that this type of thing could exist and no amount of explanation or clarification can really solve this issue.

At best the extended cut can explain most of the plot holes but not all of the plot holes especially the one related to the crucible and catalyst which leads to my next point about the elephant in the room that is the confrontation between Starchild and Commander Shepard or for better words lack of confrontation.

My two points I mention before about characterisation and cohesive narrative are important for maintaining suspension of disbelief but this is the type of thing that is common with all forms of storytelling. In video games however, we the audience control the main protagonist of the series which in the Mass Effect series is Commander Shepard.  Essentially Commander Shepard is our personal avatar and one of the things the writers did effectively was to make Commander Shepard a reflection of our personalities or our own belief or at the very least the personality of the character we are role playing. The goal of Mass Effect isn’t just to maintain the image that this is a living and breathing universe which is something that all storytellers should be able to do but to maintain the illusion that I am Commander Shepard. Of course it is impossible to account for everyone and there were moments in the series were players on occasion felt they were limited with the options but as a whole there were significant diversity in the choices in the conversation and the behaviour of Shepard to at least satisfy a diverse amount of personality.

However one of the biggest complaints about the ending was the link between the audience and Commander Shepard was broken. That Commander Shepard no longer represented the player’s belief and values and because of that the players felt betrayed by the ending. Once the idea that I am Commander Shepard is broken, the suspension of disbelief is broken as well and the illusion that this world is real and matters is gone.

To summarise people’s problem with the ending,  a lot of people saw the catalyst/Starchild to be the primary villain of the series as they are the one controlling the reapers and were responsible for the mass genocide of the series and were directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of all the characters that were haunting Commander Shepard. There were a lot of people who wanted a more antagonistic confrontation between Shepard and the catalyst and some even wanted a renegade interrupt to shoot the Starchild and then have an option to reject all the choices made by the Starchild. There were also people who did not agree with the Starchild assumption that it was inevitable that synthetic life will destroy organic life and wanted to argue with the catalyst on that point. There were people who did not trust or believe anything the Starchild said to them because they were the villain of the series and felt that all the options given by them to be a reaper trap and felt that Shepard should have been inquisitive and get more information and evidence from them. There were people who were alarmed when the Starchild mention the mass relay explosion and felt that Shepard should have question the Starchild as it could be a trap to get Shepard to do the job for the reapers by wiping out solar system and advance civilization for them. There are people who feel that all the choices that you were given were morally abhorrent (destroy - genocide, synthesis - racial homogenisation, control - reaper trap).

Even if there was a reasonable explanation why Shepard was compliant to the catalyst such as Shepard had major bloodloss and had concussion and probably wasn’t in the right mindset to create a coherent argument, the fact of the matter is that whatever the reason, the link between Commander Shepard and the player was separated and lost.

Now there are people who were satisfied with the ending and happy with the choice given to them and have the ending that reflected their personality and that is fine and I’m not going to tell those people they were wrong to feel that way. Nevertheless the goal of the series was that people with diverse personality could be reflected by Commander Shepard and from that standpoint the ending failed.

The only way this can be fixed is to write extra dialogue and add extra choices in the ending. There have been articles that Jennifer Hale (voice actress of Commander Shepard) hasn’t been contacted to do record dialogue for the Extended Cut and the reports show that they aren’t changing the ending or adding additional choices. I’m afraid that if they are sticking with the line that the ending is a clarification and not a rewrite that this problem won’t be resolve with the Extended Cut DLC

My final thoughts on the extended DLC are that on the best case scenario, this could largely salvage the ending by fixing a lot of the plot holes and linking the ending with the personal connection the players have with the main characters and make the choices people have made throughout the series become meaningful. For people who their primary problem with the ending was a lack of closure and lack of resolution then I really hope that you will reserve judgement until the DLC is actually released. A well made DLC could potentially resolve a lot of this issue and create an ending that is satisfying for you. However with the restriction of clarifying the ending and not creating new choices and new endings, the ending can’t be fully redeemed especially if your main problem with the ending was the conversation with the Starchild and how the link between Commander Shepard and the player was broken during it.

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