Bioware and Crafting the Better Story

mass effect

Today on the Geek Infusion, Matthew takes a look at one of his favorite developers, and examines how they managed to capture the essence of storytelling and getting us to care.

I love Bioware. Bias declared. I love nearly everything about them. My favourite games from the last generation, despite evidence to the contrary, were not the Assassin’s Creed games. It was Mass Effect. I even enjoyed the ending to Mass Effect 3.

The question a lot of game companies must be asking (Ubisoft, Lionhead) is how they managed to get a group of gamers to care so intently about the world in which Shepard and Co. find themselves in, when the two aforementioned studios can’t seem to capture that essence.

I believe it boils down to ones simple matter: likable, or at least relateable, characters. Something Bioware has in spades, and the crux of the issue the aforementioned companies miss.

The first thing that must be distinctly understood when confronting a fictional world is its imperfection. Human beings and, by extension, our crafted characters are inherently flawed. I recognize that this is a metaphysical argument but stay with me.

Think about any of your favourite fictional characters. Some of mine include Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Tony Stark, Ginny Weasley, oh I could go on and on.

What makes these characters interesting, able to stand out and be attractive to an audience is our ability to see ourselves in their shoes, and to understand the situations they find themselves in. In other words, we need to emotionally connect with them, and each have a different method of doing so.

Lets continue with our Mass Effect example and take a peek at a few members of the supporting cast:

Garrus is a cop, who constantly feels like the ideal of justice is hampered by the political machinations of the Citadel Council. He is akin to an old west Marshal. He’s a drinker, a fighter and a steadfast friend. His idealism is easily shaken, however, and he is taken down a dark road where he beings to equate justice with vengeance. His race is entirely for cause and government, being based upon the Romans.

Liara is a book worm, and an archaeologist. She’s also a powerful biotic (space wizard) who has no idea what she’s really capable of. She’s considered an outcast by her race as she is a pureblood Asari. They have a stigma against not mating outside the species. She is naive, and slowly opens up to the darker side of the galaxy, embracing the underworld roll of information broker, assassin and general ne’er do well.

Lastly, my favourite: Tali’Zorah. Tali’s race spends their life entirely confined to environmental suits. They spend life aboard a fleet of ships due to their artificial slave race rising up against them. As such they wander. She constantly craves to feel life outside the suit. To touch people without gloves, to smell a flower or to even feel a breeze. She also begins the journey as child, but (unlike the previous two) never gives up hope. This however gets exploited from time to time as she usually tries to see the best in everyone.

These are the kinds of characters that populate the world. Even the shopkeepers have their own personalities, and ways of doing things. It’s a living breathing world, and it doesn’t require the thousands of NPCs that Ubisoft seems to think crafts a world, nor the inconsequential NPCs that Lionhead uses.

The ability to relate is essential, and to do that you have to give your audience a reason. I have never yet played a Fable game where I was made to consider the impact my choices had on the world around me. It was more like a sandbox and less like there were any kind of stakes involved.

Ubisoft makes this mistake as well by only keeping characters around for one game. They start off well, with Ezio for three games, and then derail the whole thing. We don’t have enough time to get to known anyone.

Case in point, I can name nearly all the assassination targets in the AC II trilogy, or at least their motivations and how they fit in to the over all arc of the story. The same can, roughly, be said for ACIII. By the time we get to ACIV, we’ve lost that, and Unity is worse. I’d have liked a couple of games to get to know the characters.

This is also where Lionhead studios tends to go wrong. All of the Fable games are connected by the main character’s bloodline, but it’s not enough. There’s no time to even get to know the world around you because they feel the need to change how Albion looks in every game.

Secondly, and perhaps just as importantly, is the ability to communicate the rules of your world. What governs how things work. In AC it’s the pieces of Eden, in Albion its magic and in Mass Effect its…Mass Effect.

AC does a poor job of this. You basically have to read the database or even the real world wiki to get some sense of how the pieces of Eden work. The characters all seem to know how they function to some extent, but they never tell you and there is no exposition on the matter.

In Mass Effect, however, everything is explained through exposition. From how Mass Effect fields are generated, to how they cause faster than light travel, to how politics work with each species.

If you talk to enough people, you will begin to see the heartbeat of the galaxy emerge and find yourself immersed in a wonderfully atmospheric universe. You get a sense of just how small you are in relation to everything else, and it makes the odds you are up against seem that much worse.

So now we have both a reason to care, and a reason to be afraid. We are engaged. This is the silver bullet of all story telling. Be it a novel, play, film or video game.

This is the lesson that needs to be taken away. You need to engage your audience at an emotional and intellectual level. Let them think about the characters, and how each one of them is going to react to the choices you’re asking the player to make. Give them downtime to interact with these characters and see what makes them tick.

It’s not enough to give a database that ticks as you see important things and people. It’s easy to tell an audience they should care. It’s another thing entirely to get them to do so.

And until some companies figure this out, they are continually going to be snapping at the heels of those who already have.

Bioware and Crafting the Better Story

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