Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What I've learned from Writing Excuses

I first started writing in something resembling a serious fashion during my sophomore year in college.  That was back in 1999.  I feel so old saying that.  Anyways, I joined an online Star Wars club (because I am that much of a nerd) and one of the core activities of that club was writing essentially what amounts to Star Wars fan fiction.  There have been a variety of ups-and-downs in my relationship with the club, as well as my dedication to just writing for me.  Which ultimately means that while I can be pretty opinionated about the writing aspect of various forms of entertainment (just ask my wife after we have seen a movie together for the first time), I'm not as far along with my own literary skills as I would like.

Recently I've started listening to the Writing Excuses podcast pretty regularly.  I downloaded every podcast from their website onto my iPhone, and listen to a little more than one whole podcast on my way to work in the morning, and one more on the way home.  Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, Dan Wells, and the (relatively) recent addition of Mary Robinette Kowal are all pretty amazing authors.  Listening to them analyze the craft of writing is both educational and informative.  In fact I imagine I'll be talking about them individual and the podcast itself quite a bit in the future.

One little gem that has been mentioned several times, primarily by both Howard and Brandon I believe, is the idea of 'fulfilling promises made to your readers'.  In addition to the beginning of your story setting up the theme, tone, setting, characters and plot, whether you know it or not, you are also making certain promises to your readers.  Based on their initial impressions they are going to make certain assumptions about what will or will not happen by the end of the story.

(Yes, it is possible to subvert those expectations, but I'm not talking about that today.)

One of my biggest qualms with Mass Effect 3 and how it ended is that there were several such implicit promises that were made earlier in the series that I never felt were fulfilled.  Things like this:

"The Decisions you make matter"

In Mass Effect 1 you discover that an alien race, called Rachni and long believed extinct, is still around.  And you have the choice to free them from imprisonment or to kill them all.  Bioware touted from the beginning that such decisions would impact events later on, in addition to the more immediate consequences in the original game.  As a result, I expect that choosing to kill or save the Rachni will have huge ramifications by the end of the trilogy.

If you chose to free the Rachni, then in Mass Effect 2 you meet someone that was helped by the Rachni and is now returning the favor…but that's it.  And then in Mass Effect 3, you just discover that they've been enslaved again, you can choose (again) to free them or let them die.  

And even if you choose to free them, nothing else in the game really gives any indication of that being a big decision.  They never really show up again, even in the big space battle at the end. The consequences of this decision should have been huge, instead of feeling like an afterthought.  Because not only did it feel like the initial decision was worthless, I'm faced with pretty much the exact same decision two games later, and it still has almost no impact on how the rest of the game plays.

The hero should eventually get to fight the villain

In Mass Effect 2 the villain orchestrating events throughout the game is named Harbinger.  Harbinger can possess his minions and act directly through them.  So you literally spend the entire game fighting against him without being able to actually fight or kill him.  Your character never even sees Harbinger aside from in holograms, and you (the player) only get to see him briefly in the cutscene at the end of the game.  

As an ending by itself, that's fine, but now I expect that I'll get to face off with Harbinger and beat him down by the end of Mass Effect 3.  

Instead we are treated to a poorly executed 'surprise' main villain, Harbinger isn't even mentioned until around 75% through the game, and he only shows up once to blow things up at a key moment.  And then he flies away, never to be seen or mentioned again.  Very disappointing.

Mysteries should be explained

Also in Mass Effect 2, there's a big mystery surround a particular star that seems to be aging must faster than it should.  But there's no resolution to the mystery, since your character's primary focus at the time was to simply recruit a member of the research team assigned to that project.  One would expect that such an unusual phenomena would be revisited in the final installment of the trilogy.  But no one even mentions it.  

The moral of the story is that, as writers, we have to be aware of what we're promising to our readers, even if we are not aware of having made those promises.

Starting tomorrow I'm going to start talking about things I actually like, where I felt the writing worked, and leave Mass Effect 3 alone.  I've spent more than enough time agonizing about how tragically (and not in a classical/good way) the series ended.  

I think I'll have to put it in the same drawer that has the Star Wars prequel trilogy DVDs in it.  In some ways it feels like they belong together.

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