Point Lookout is unbelievably creepy, from the minute you get off the ferry into the deserted, foggy island, with its crumbling amusement park, cemeteries, bands of deformed, mad hill-people trying to kill you, and omnipresent strange hanging dolls and mutilated toys.

It only gets creepier from there, as you discover haunted mansions with an evil brain-in-a-jar, ritualistic sacrifice altars, evidence of plots set in motion by communist spies, a mysterious cult in a church, a quest to recover a forbidden Necronomiconical tome and a chilling hallucinogenic sequence set deep in the swamps. 

(Oh, and there’s also wrecked ship called the USS Ozymandias. You can imagine how I loved that.)

Playing Point Lookout, I more than once wondered about the story behind it—there are so many unnerving, disturbing sights that I honestly worry about the mental state of the team that made it. And I haven’t even gotten to what makes it creepiest yet, but let me hold off on that for the nonce. 

While I generally don’t like the stereotype of mobs of evil, in-bred hillbillies—always seemed a little offensive to rural people, to me—I have to admit it absolutely works here. They’re a lot more unsettling than the straight-up zombie skeletons that are also roaming around, because they’re almost human. And it’s not really explained how they got this way, either—there are a number of possibilities.

The main quest of the game is actually its weakest point, but that’s par for the course in Bethesda games. I still enjoyed infiltrating the cult.

The real strength of Bethesda has always been its environmental design, and is that ever on display here. There are a thousand little stories you can piece together from inspecting various aspects of world around you, and pretty much all of them are the stuff of nightmares. The Homestead Motel alone is terrifying.

I also like the puzzle to get into the sinister mansion, even though I had to look up how to do it online, which normally annoys me to no end.

All right, time to lay my cards on the table: yes, I know Point Lookout is actually an add-on for Fallout 3, which, while fun, is actually kind of a stupid game. The writing in the main game is abysmal, as Shamus Young has cataloged in meticulous detail.

The thing is, the general idiocy of Fallout 3 actually makes Point Lookout better. I wasn’t expecting to go from a relatively generic, incoherently-written post-apocalypse into a foggy swamp of psychosexual Lovecraftian horror. But that’s what happened, and the sheer surprise of it added to the fear.

It would, in my opinion, have been the ultimate horror-writer move to create Fallout 3 simply as a vehicle to get people to play Point Lookout. Fallout 3 is the red balloon, Point Lookout is Pennywise. I’ve said it a million times: the best horror doesn’t announce itself; rather, it sneaks in, presents itself as something unassuming and inviting, and then springs the trap. That was the way of M.R. James, and while he was an incredibly screwed-up person, he was a great horror writer. Because every time you start reading one of his stories, you think, This doesn’t seem so bad.  And then…

Not that I think that’s what the designers set out to do. I’m pretty sure Bethesda didn’t take the trouble of getting the Fallout license just to mess with people. My point is just that this is how you deliver a good scary experience: first, change your audience’s expectations, so they’re not expecting to be scared.

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Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

[Thanks to Lydia Schoch for inspiring me to write this. Be sure to check out her post on fictional romances.]

You’ll notice I don’t often write romantic sub-plots in my stories. I was feeling pretty bold with 1NG4 and included one, but it’s largely implied and in the background of the larger story. 

Romance is hard to write. You need characters who work on their own, and also complement one another. It’s about balance. If you get unbalanced characters, it doesn’t work—or at best, it only works as wish-fulfillment for people who want to imagine their perfectly ordinary self being married to a demigod or goddess. 

And if you’re writing a story where the romance is the plot, then you also have to come up with some reason why two characters who clearly belong together aren’t. Usually social expectations are the best mechanism for doing this, to the point that it’s a cliché—A can’t marry B because it would violate all of their society’s most sacred traditions!

The problem with these sorts of stories is that too often, it becomes more about the pursuit, and in the process, one character gets reduced to nothing more than a McGuffin that the other character is trying to get. I hate that.

Here are some fictional romances I consider effective. You’ll notice that they are generally sub-plots, or at least not the sole focus of the story.

Evie Carnahan and Rick O’Connell (The Mummy) 

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Evie Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) The Mummy. Universal Pictures. Re-used under Fair Use

This works because it’s pretty well-balanced—Evie’s brains and Rick’s adventuring skills make them a natural team. This is what I mean—if Evie were always a helpless damsel in distress, or Rick were always a big stupid lug, it would be dopey. But as it is, you can see why they would gravitate to one another, apart from “It’s a movie and we need a romance.”

Thomasin Yeobright and Diggory Venn (The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy)

When you read about Return of the Native, 90% of what you hear about is Eustacia Vye this, Damon Wildeve that. I love the book, but as far as I’m concerned, both of them can go soak their heads. Oh, wait—I guess they do. Sorry if I spoiled this 141-year-old book. Anyway, what I like about the book is Venn’s loyalty to Thomasin, and his (admittedly credulity-straining) adventures as the almost super-human “Reddleman” looking out for her.) 

Miranda Lawson and Commander Shepard (Mass Effect 2-3)

Image result for miranda lawson shepard
Commander Shepard (voiced by Mark Meer) and Miranda Lawson (voiced and modeled on Yvonne Strahovski) Mass Effect 3. Electronic Arts. Re-used under Fair Use.

Am I the only person who doesn’t hate Miranda? I might well be. Most players find her stuck-up, but I like her. Maybe part of it is that because ME 2/3 built up Commander Shepard as this awesome hero, and Miranda seems like the nearest thing to his equal in a universe that otherwise regards him as something close to a God. She saved his life, and she’s genetically engineered to be perfect, so she  can meet him on even ground. I like that. I don’t see an equivalent romantic interest for female Shepard.

But maybe it’s just my fondness for Australian accents that’s making me biased here.

Honorable Mentions: Unrequited Romances

I started out to make a list of good requited romances, because those are harder for me to write than unrequited ones. But that’s not to say that an unrequited romance can’t make for a good story, because it absolutely can. In fact, the advantage of these stories is that they have conflict inherent in them, as opposed to having to be introduced externally. So, here are some good ones:

-The Carlo/Corelli sub-plot in Corelli’s Mandolin. One of the most interesting things about the disastrous movie adaptation was that this was the only romantic sub-plot that even remotely made sense. 

– The Atris/Jedi Exile relationship in Knights of the Old Republic II. I talk a little about that here. Actually, KotOR II is brimming with tons of unfulfilled or outright doomed romances. Chris Avellone is great at writing those.

-Elsie Maynard and Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard. Just listen to this.

And now, for my favorite fictional romance…

Jane Ballard and Dan Frost (Jane Got a Gun)

Jane and Dan
Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) and Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) Jane Got a Gun. The Weinstein Co. Re-used under Fair Use.

Come on, you all knew this would be here. I love this movie, and a big reason why is the relationship between the two leads. The way they gradually rekindle their relationship under brutal circumstances makes for a great story, and the carefree romance of their past contrasted with the grim present is very powerful. True, a lot of what makes it work is the acting as much as anything—the same lines with lesser actors wouldn’t work as well.

I suppose that writing romance for the screen or the stage is easier than writing it in a novel. In a visual medium, putting two attractive people with great chemistry together gets you at least halfway to making the audience to buy in. On the page, though, you have to do a lot more work.

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Kreia, from Chris Avellone’s “Knights of the Old Republic II”. Possibly my favorite fictional character, and a great example of a well-written female character.

A.C. Flory wrote a brought up a good point about Theresa Gannon, the protagonist of my book, The Directorate:

“I couldn’t relate to the main character… I simply don’t see her as female… to me, Gannon could be a he just as easily as a she.”

I know exactly what she means. Honestly, I’m surprised more readers don’t mention this, because I feel the same way. There was never much of anything distinctively female about Gannon.

“Well, you’re the one who wrote it!” you are no doubt thinking. “Why didn’t you fix that, dummy?”

Good question. As a male, writing a good female character is something I find difficult, for a number of reasons.

Stereotypes

The lazy, quick-fix approach to make a character seem distinctively gendered is to resort to stereotypes. I could have made Gannon interested in things like clothes, or shoes, or something like that. That would be stereotypically feminine.

But I hate stereotypes. It’s not that there isn’t any truth to them; most people are stereotypical in one way or another. That’s why stereotypes exist, after all. But the point of writing fiction is to give people something new and surprising. Stereotypes are, by their nature, not new and surprising but old and familiar. So in general, I think it’s good to avoid them whenever possible when you’re writing stories.

This is another way of saying that it would just feel ham-handed and rather disrespectful to have my space soldier run off to go shoe shopping. Other, more skilled writers probably could pull that off, but I couldn’t.

Writing From A Female Perspective

You don’t have to resort to stereotypes to write plausibly feminine characters, though. You can write plausible, relatable, well-rounded characters who are also distinctly women.

The big problem I see in a lot of female characters written by men is that they tend to be distinctly women first, and characters second. Usually this manifests itself in female characters being preoccupied with sex in one way or another, or else being described largely in sexual terms. I’ve read way too many female characters who seem to exist solely as sexual beings, and it gets tiresome. With Gannon, I consciously strove to avoid this. In doing so, I think I made her too non-sexual, and that makes it hard to relate to her.

The Miranda Lawson Problem

Making a character sexy is a risky proposition. If done right, it can make a character that much more memorable. But more often than not, I feel like the risk outweighs the reward, and you can end ruining a character by trying to sex them up.

Miranda Lawson is one of my favorite characters in the Mass Effect video game series. Part of it is Yvonne Strahovski’s performance (I love Australian accents, OK?), but she’s also a pretty well-written character. She’s been genetically engineered to be the “perfect woman”, and as a result, she feels a lot of pressure to be the best–pressure that sometimes makes her do morally questionable things. All in all, a really good character.

But! There’ s a major “but” here (pun not intended): for some reason, BioWare designed many of the game’s dialogue and cinematic scenes to focus, ridiculously, on her backside. Miranda wears a white catsuit, and the animators missed no opportunity to show her from the back, the most egregious example being a dialogue scene where the view “pauses” there for as long as the player wants until they choose to advance in the conversation.

BioWare defended this by saying it’s part of Miranda’s “character” that she’s genetically-engineered to be beautiful, and supposedly all this was to underscore just how sexualized she was, and how that impacts her personality.

Maybe that was the idea, but it totally didn’t come across that way. It became a running joke by Mass Effect 3 that if Miranda was around, the “camera” had to be positioned behind her. It made her seem less like a character and more like a sex object–which was too bad, because she actually is a good character, and it’s a shame she became the butt of jokes instead.

This is something that’s always bothered me, and what I took away from how Miranda is perceived is that making a character sexy is a very dangerous thing to attempt. It can very easily turn your well-crafted character into a ridiculous figure. I think this is especially true for men writing women.

Mary Sues vs. Competent Men

There’s another common criticism that I’m surprised no one has yet leveled at Gannon, but which I fully expect I’ll hear someday: that she’s a “Mary Sue”. “Mary Sues” are “idealized and seemingly perfect” characters, as Wikipedia puts it. Characters who exhibit preternatural skill in a variety of areas. Such characters seem too good to be true, and as such are hard to relate to.

The term “Mary Sue” comes from a parody of Star Trek fan fiction, so this is an issue for sci-fi writers especially. And the original Mary Sue was even a lieutenant, just like Gannon is! So, I probably am guilty of this.

Here’s my defense: there’s another stock character in fiction, referred to as the “Competent Man“. This character archetype is strongly associated with the work of science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who wrote a passage extolling the virtues of having many skills, concluding with the famous phrase, “Specialization is for insects.His heroes tend to have a wide variety of skills.

And indeed, having many skills is rather key to becoming a hero. Incompetent characters would not be terribly effective at having heroic adventures.

As a few readers noticed, many elements of The Directorate are intended as an homage to exactly the kind of military science fiction that Heinlein pioneered. I think such stories lend themselves to having competent protagonists–after all, usually people who are or have been in military service possess a lot of training in a wide variety of skills.

Have Female Editors

One piece of advice for any men who are writing female characters: make sure you have female editors and/or beta readers. I would never have attempted to publish a novel with a female protagonist if I hadn’t known women who could critique it first. And am I ever glad they did, because their feedback improved Gannon tremendously from the first draft to the one I ultimately published.

That said, there were still times when I would overrule their objections and refuse to modify something. Because, first and foremost, Gannon had to be somebody I understood. If I didn’t do that, I would have no chance of writing her plausibly. So when somebody suggested changing the character in a way that didn’t sit right with me, I would stick with the way I wanted her. I feel it had to be this way, but it’s quite possible this made her less-relatable to everyone else.

“Everywoman”

As I’ve discussed before, my early writing has been rightly criticized for having too little description. I tried to correct this in The Directorate, and not just in describing the setting–which is essential in sci-fi–but also in how I described the appearance of the characters.

The exception is Gannon. I was deliberately vague about how she looked, because I wanted the reader to project their own image of Gannon. For most of the book, she is the proxy for the reader, and they experience the world through her eyes. My idea was that by leaving her description largely to the reader, they could create their own image of a character they found relatable. (This is something I picked up writing horror: what the reader imagines for themselves is usually way better than whatever you as the author create.)

It’s possible I made her too vaguely-defined, however; and this could make her difficult to relate to.

Conclusion

Creating convincing female characters is one of the biggest challenges of writing fiction for me. I try to avoid obvious pitfalls that I’ve seen a lot of male writers fall into–lengthy descriptions of their anatomy, character traits that are nothing more than clichéd stereotypes–but I’m still not entirely satisfied with what I’ve done so far. The good news is that I can tell I’m improving, and the more I write, the more I feel emboldened to experiment with characterizations, which hopefully will lead to better and more relatable characters.

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I’m not reviewing this game. I’m reviewing the reviews of it.

I haven’t played it. I probably won’t play it. I haven’t played a Far Cry game in years. You can read my thoughts on Far Cry 2 here. My sense is that not much has changed about the series since then.

For those who don’t know: Far Cry 5 is set in Montana, and the plot involves a doomsday cult of survivalist “preppers”. I don’t know much beyond that, but I gather it follows the standard Far Cry formula of a big open world for the player to run around in, getting in gunfights and blowing stuff up.

The marketing for the game has hyped the political aspects of the plot, and generated lots of controversy as a result.

The reviews I’ve read, however, have almost all complained that the game doesn’t have any real political message, saying things like “it plays it too safe” and “doesn’t want to offend people”. I get the sense a lot of people are disappointed in Ubisoft for not dialing the political commentary up to 11.

I admit, once I learned it was going to be just another open-world mayhem thing, with no major political message, I also lost interest in it. But I can’t blame Ubisoft for making that decision. If you think about it, they hardly had a choice.

Far Cry games are about people in extreme environments, fighting to survive against hordes of enemies with a vast array of deadly weapons. There is no clear morality in the world of Far Cry, save the Law of the Jungle. So if you play these games, it means you want to role-play surviving in a savage world of death and destruction.

Survivalists, doomsday preppers, and militia types are doing the same thing. They’re just acting out this fantasy, as opposed to playing a virtual simulation of it. In gaming lingo, they’re Live-Action Role-Playing, or “LARP-ing”.

So Ubisoft couldn’t go full bore political satire against survivalist/militia-types without also attacking their target audience. For those saying that Far Cry 5 should attack people who fetishize wilderness survival and military hardware: Who exactly do you think is buying this $60 simulation of over-the-top violence and destruction?

Is it possible for a game to criticize its audience? Yes, I have seen it done once: Spec Ops: The Line presented itself as a standard-issue military shooter, only to turn everything on its head and morph into a mind-bending satire of the genre that forced the player to question why they play these things at all.

But Spec Ops was not a huge money-maker, and Ubisoft is not going to alienate a huge portion of its audience for the sake of making a clever satire. The majority of audiences do not want to be satirized. They want to be entertained. It would be kind of like writing a detective novel where the detective fails to catch the killer specifically because he spends too much time reading detective novels.

“Form ever follows function” wrote the architect Louis Sullivan, and it’s a good principle for design in any medium. Because if you try to make a game whose function (satire of gun-loving survivalists) is directly opposed to its form (a simulation of gun-loving survivalism), the customers who want the form are going to be upset, and the customers who want the function probably aren’t going to buy it in the first place.

Most fiction is treated as entertainment and nothing more. You watch a movie for two hours, maybe talk about it a little with your friends afterward, and that’s it. There are some works here and there that are so dazzling they make a more lasting impression on you. Really spectacular special effects in a movie, or a particularly good line of dialogue, or a moving character death in a novel can do this.

This is as much of an impression as most fiction makes upon its audience. But there is another level on which a story can function. It is the most powerful, and also the hardest to achieve. That is the type of story that actually makes the audience look at the world differently, and act differently as a result.

This is, I think, pretty rare. There may be many stories trying to achieve it, but only a few succeed. And even those that do succeed probably only do so for a small percentage of their total audience.1

Note that when I say “act differently”, I’m not referring to the people who saw Star Wars or Harry Potter and decided to start attending fan conventions in costume, or to name their children “Anakin” or “Hermione”, or to have themed weddings based on the stories. That’s fandom, and can happen with anything.

What I’m talking about is general knowledge that you can apply to a wide variety of situations. And it has to be something that wasn’t obvious or easy, at least not for you. Lots of stories try to have some overarching theme on the order of “You can do anything if you believe in yourself”. Which may be true, but is so obvious most audiences probably have heard it already.

Naturally, the idea for this post began when I asked myself, “What works of fiction changed how I act?” This is the list I came up with. Long-time readers will probably not be surprised by most of the entries:

  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. (In a nutshell, the big takeaway is that every action has consequences, often ones we don’t foresee. So choose wisely and think about how your actions will influence others.)
  • Jane Got a Gun. (The lesson here is that you should never assume you know the whole story. You should listen to what other people have to say, even if you think you know better.)
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. (This one is pretty well known, but for me the lesson is that people try to seize power not only by force, but by controlling the thoughts of others. You have to resist them.)
  • Eating Bull by Carrie Rubin. (The point here is that what people eat is driven by a number of personal, societal and economic factors. Your diet is a more complicated business than you might realize.)

KotOR and Jane changed how I approach day-to-day interactions with people. Nineteen Eighty-Four changed how I read political news and think about government. And Eating Bull changed how I eat.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of fiction I consider “good”, though it is a sub-set of it.2 In fact, I was shocked at how short the list is, given how many works of fiction I enjoy in different genres and media.

I am a big fan of weird fiction, but I can’t say I did anything different after reading Lovecraft et al. (Other than trying to write weird fiction myself, I guess.) I love the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, but they didn’t change how I approach the world. And the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are also absent from this list, even though it was from a G&S critic, Gayden Wren, that I first learned how to analyze fiction in terms of “levels” of storytelling.

Now, it’s probably true that the stories I listed above weren’t the only way I could have learned these lessons. Maybe the reason I needed fiction to learn them at all is that I’m an especially unobservant person, or else I would have figured them out myself from observing the real world.3

But if so, that speaks to the power of fiction: it can teach people things they would otherwise never have learned.

NOTES

  1. To a degree, it’s a personal thing. The unique circumstances under which somebody sees a film, plays a game, or reads a book, probably play just as much of a part as the work itself.
  1. It’s important to realize that a story can also be pretty bad, from a technical perspective, but still change how people see the world. Many people seem to get life-altering epiphanies from reading Ayn Rand’s novels, but they still have many flaws as works of drama. This raises an important point, which is that some people  “cheat” and try to tell a story about big, powerful themes without first having a solidly-constructed plot and characters. If you do this, you usually just end up making something incoherent and pretentious.
  1. I guess this is the central difference between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is entertainment, and it’s a bonus if you learn something from it. Whereas every work of non-fiction should teach you something new, or it’s a waste of time.

I keep writing reviews that include a line to the effect that “it’s like Lovecraft, but it also explores aspects of human psychology that Lovecraft always ignored.” This has happened with The Ballad of Black Tom, Annihilation (the book and the movie), Prey, and The Friendship of Mortals. I’ve been writing this so much that I can’t call this an exception to the rule anymore. It has become a style of its own.

It feels wrong to call it “Lovecraftian” horror. Lovecraft deliberately minimized the role of human emotions and thoughts in all his stories. Lovecraft’s philosophy was that human beings were unimportant “incidents” in the grand cosmic scheme, and he wrote accordingly. That was part of the horror. (Hence “cosmic horror” as a synonym for “Lovecraftian”.)

The works I listed above certainly retain elements of cosmic horror, but flesh out their human characters, making them interesting and relatable. Whereas Lovecraft approached the horror of humanity’s place in the cosmos with a detached, dispassionate tone, subsequent writers have framed it by humanizing their characters first, then pitting them against the unimaginable outside forces.

This style is also different from the kind of horror that humanizes things too much to be called “cosmic”. Stephen King, for example, writes in a style more like that of noir detective thrillers that feels too immediate and gritty to be “cosmic”—even in stories that have what you might call Lovecraftian elements. (e.g. 11/22/63) The works I’ve described above are much closer to a 50/50 balance than King’s style of an “earthly” horror story with a few cosmic elements.

My point isn’t that any one of these styles is better or worse than the others; but just to point out that they are distinct, and that I don’t know of any term that fits stories like those I’ve listed here. Calling them “semi-Lovecraftian” or “semi-cosmic” feels too weak. “Weird fiction” or “New Weird fiction” is too broad. The best I can come up with is “humanized cosmicism”, but that sounds awkward.

Thoughts?

I had low expectations for this game. After the fiasco of the Mass Effect 3 ending, coupled with EA’s general business practice of filling out their games with overpriced DLC and tacked-on  multiplayer, I wasn’t expecting them to do much with a new entry in the series.

Besides, the original Mass Effect trilogy was a lot of fun, but also wildly uneven. The first game had a brilliant story and atmosphere, but clunky controls and emotionless characters. The second game, as re-imagined by EA, had great characters and terrific voice-acting, but an incoherent mess of a plot that was only tangentially related to the story set up by the first game. And the third game had tighter controls, better combat, and a surprisingly good crafting system—but it compounded the story errors of its predecessor tenfold, while also doing major disservices to the characters. And that was before the infamous disaster that was the game’s finale.

All in all, while I had a lot of fun with the Mass Effect trilogy, there was no avoiding the fact that it was a decidedly mixed bag—some brilliant elements; some rather shockingly bad ones. For years, I’ve said that if someone made a game that had the story and atmosphere of Mass Effect 1, the characters and voice-acting of Mass Effect 2, and the gameplay mechanics and crafting systems of Mass Effect 3, it would be a true masterpiece.

And now I know I was right. Because Mass Effect Andromeda is that game.

I don’t think I have ever been as pleasantly surprised by a game as I was by this one. I was expecting a Gears of War clone with a Mass Effect coat of paint. Instead I got an epic adventure in a sprawling galaxy, complete with likable characters, clever writing, and what just might be the best-designed combat and exploration mechanics I’ve ever seen.

You play as Ryder, a special operative who, in the early stages of the game, assumes the mantle of Pathfinder—the person tasked with setting up colonies in the Andromeda galaxy on behalf of an organization called “The Initiative”. Like Shepard in the first three Mass Effects, Ryder can be either male or female. The official canon has male Ryder’s name as “Scott”, and female Ryder’s as “Sara”, but the game allows you to choose your own first name. So, as I have traditionally done in RPGs at least since Fallout: New Vegas, I’m playing as a woman named Jane.

Jane Ryder
This is my Pathfinder. There are many like her, but this one is mine.

I have never felt such a connection with a player character before. Not with Shepard, not with the Courier, not with J.C. Denton—not even with the Jedi Exile. Something made me feel attached to my Ryder. Fryda Wolff’s terrific voice-acting is part of it, I’m sure, as she manages to at least match the great Jennifer Hale’s Commander Shepard, and perhaps even raise the bar a little higher. Tom Taylorson also does a good job in the brief but important scenes Scott has in a female Ryder playthrough. (I haven’t played the full game as Scott. I’m not sure if I ever will–to me, there can only be one Ryder.)

I can’t give a full plot summary, or this review would be longer than War and Peace. Ryder leads her team across the various worlds of Andromeda, battling the hostile species known as the Kett, making alliances with the native Angara species, setting up outposts, uncovering the remains of a bygone species known as the Remnant and in the process making the worlds of Andromeda livable for the Milky Way species—humans, turians, asari and krogan.

Desert on Eos

The first planet Ryder explores, Eos, was where I really started to grasp that Andromeda was something far more epic than I had expected. As I drove around the gorgeous, sprawling deserts, listening to Cora and Peebee banter while we fought the Kett and secured our outpost, I realized I was 10 hours in, and the save screen informed me I was only 10% of the way done with the game. For comparison, a typical playthrough of KotOR II or New Vegas (two of my all-time favorite games) takes me between 20-30 hours.

Wow, I thought. I’m sure I’ll pick up the pace soon, but I’m looking at a 40-hour game here.

Try 73 hours. And counting. The game goes on after you beat the final boss.

I have trouble being a completionist my first time through an RPG. I usually start off vowing to do all the sidequests and explore every nook and cranny, but then I get impatient and want to see what happens in the main story and wind up rushing to finish it. That didn’t happen with Andromeda—the game made me feel like I really was exploring new worlds and discovering new wonders, not just mowing down wave after wave of bad guys en route to the end.

Fighting Kett
The combat in this game is some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Now, it’s true, there are tons of bad guys to be mowed down, and what a system BioWare has designed to do so. As with the other games, there are combat powers, biotic (telekinetic) powers and tech powers. All of these lead to remarkably different playstyles. As if that weren’t enough, Ryder’s weapons are highly customizable. You not only can build new ones from scratch, but you can add augmentations and mods that drastically alter their behavior. (I made all my weapons super rapid-fire laser guns, for example.)

I almost never bother with crafting systems in RPGs, but I was hooked on this one early on. After every mission, I was always rushing back to the modding table to see what new armor and weaponry I could put together.

The way you acquire new equipment is also ingenious. Throughout the game, you can scan various objects for research points that you can spend on building new items.  This again reinforces the need to explore every inch of the galaxy in order to build new equipment that leads to better combat. It’s all a very nice feedback loop.

Now, again, good game mechanics don’t count for much without a good story and characters. After all, Mass Effect 3 had a good crafting system too, but nobody walked away from it thinking “I was really satisfied with that shotgun I built!”

Andromeda’s overall story, while not terribly innovative, avoids descending into utter nonsense like Mass Effect 2 and 3 so often did. And its character interactions are every bit as good as those in ME 2. There are even a few scenes that do something very rare for a video game (or even most Hollywood films, for that matter): scenes where the characters don’t say anything in response, but instead convey what they are thinking solely with the facial expressions. There was one scene where two crew members are arguing  over something silly and Ryder silently facepalms in the background. This was a level of nuance that I was not expecting. For all the complaints about animation glitches (I’ll get to that), it was nice to see that degree of realism.

Each member of Ryder’s crew has a backstory, as does Ryder herself. The Ryder family history is quite interesting, and gradually piecing it together makes for a very satisfying subplot, with a great payoff during the endgame sequence.

All the backstories are slowly revealed over the course of the game, and the development of relationships works much better than in past Mass Effects because of Andromeda’s slower pace. It seems more plausible that a crew member would fall in love with you over the course of many conversations and missions together, rather than the old model of “three conversations and then bed”.

Now, as you are likely aware, the knock on Andromeda is that it’s glitchy. The animations are awkward and there are weird bugs and incomplete quests.

Yes, all of this is true. The game crashes abruptly sometimes. There are some sidequests that are broken. (One was a simple “scan three things” mission, and the game never gave me the option to scan the third.) The facial animations, while sophisticated and nuanced in concept as I described, do sometimes look a little bizarre. When talking to her AI assistant, SAM, Ryder sometimes turns her head around 180 degrees on her neck, like she’s possessed. In one cutscene, one party member was placed directly over top of another, causing them to meld together—I hadn’t seen anything so weird since the sex scene in Blade Runner 2049. And the krogan party member makes the game’s framerate slow down to a crawl if you enter combat with him. (On the flip side, this glitch also makes Ryder immortal.)

Cora
This is far from the weirdest facial animation you’ll see.

All of these are indeed annoying bugs, and if you came to Andromeda as someone used to polished AAA games, I can see it would be pretty appalling.

Let me explain why I can forgive it: my introduction to RPGs was BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, which I first played on the Xbox 360 in 2006. Because it was an original Xbox game that had to be made compatible with the new console, it had all kinds of slowdown issues in combat, random crashes during loading, and a host of other issues. But I enjoyed the thrill of a grand adventure across the galaxy with my rag-tag band of party members so much that I could forgive all. I’d never played anything like it before, and a few bugs here and there couldn’t interfere with the ambitious scope of the game.

Then I played Knights of the Old Republic II, by Obsidian, and again had to deal with broken quests (fuel for Telos, anyone?), glitches, and an ending that seemed (on the first playthrough) confusing and abrupt. But I loved it even more than KotOR I for the brilliance of the writing, the complexity of the characters, the brooding, ominous atmosphere, and the deep, philosophical questions at the core of the story. To this day, it remains my favorite game—perhaps even my favorite work of fiction, regardless of medium.

Since then, I’ve loved lots of games that had their technical flaws, be they bad graphics, (Deus Ex) frequent crashes (Fallout: New Vegas) bizarre texture glitches and entire rooms that didn’t load (Alpha Protocol) or just being so utterly broken they couldn’t be played without cheats. (Mask of the Betrayer) I loved them all, in spite of their technical shortcomings, because they more than made up for it with the sheer ambitiousness of their stories, the scope of their settings, and the depth of their themes.

Nomad on Voeld
Exploring in the Nomad.

Mass Effect Andromeda is another in that class. Its flaws are the flaws of a work so daring that it pushes the limits of the possible. Unlike the original Mass Effect trilogy, which always felt oddly constrained despite its space-faring setting, Andromeda really does shoot for the stars. It gives you a sense of freedom, of exploration and of adventure. Whereas Mass Effects 1 -3 boiled down to the story of Commander Shepard vs. the Reapers, Andromeda feels like a universe of countless stories, in which Ryder’s is but one—an important one, with significance to all the others, but still, just one. As I discussed in my KotOR II video, the interplay of galaxy-spanning concerns with deeply personal ones gives the game a truly epic feeling.

Andromeda
The Heleus cluster, where Ryder’s adventure takes place.

That’s another difference with the original series: unlike the Lovecraftian bleakness of the Reaper threat at the heart of Shepard’s story, Andromeda belongs to a different strain of science fiction—the optimistic sort, about life surviving in alien settings and using technology to overcome adversity. A fittingly pioneer spirit underlies all of Ryder’s adventures, and when, after long fights and lengthy treks across strange worlds, Ryder establishes a new outpost, you feel a sense of accomplishment—like you really did use your powers to help out humanity. It’s an inspiring theme; a throwback to the “space cowboys” epics of the past, when space was viewed as another frontier to be tamed and made habitable.

While the writing is not as deep, and the themes are lighter and less complex, Mass Effect Andromeda is the first game I’ve played since KotOR II that really made me feel like I was part of a universe, and even more importantly, made me think about what that really means. Like Obsidian’s epic, it makes the player ponder the meaning and the scale of their decisions, and reflect on, ultimately, humanity’s place in the cosmos.  There is no higher compliment that I can pay a work of fiction.

Ryder in game
Pathfinder Ryder on bridge. Where to next?

So, this is the project I’ve been hinting about on Twitter these last few weeks. I decided to do it on a lark, and ultimately it turned into way more work than I expected. Yet for some reason I kept going. I’m not even sure why; I had more or less accepted the fact that some technical glitch was eventually going to scuttle it, but I just kept plugging away at it, and here we are.

I’m not happy about the reduced size of the video and all the black space on the screen. I’m a total newbie when it comes to making videos, so there’s probably an easy fix that I just failed to figure out. It might have something to do with the resolution (The original was saved at 720p. At 480p the footage is in an even smaller box.) If I figure out how to solve it, I might do a re-upload. But that probably won’t happen for a while; I’ve got other stuff I want to work on first.

Consider this video a supplement to the KotOR II retrospective I wrote a few years ago. The essay is more thorough—and more eloquent—than my remarks here, but I hope having some footage from the game helps make my points a little more clear, especially for people who haven’t played it. The reason I keep talking about this game so much is that I think it contains lots of useful examples for writing fiction generally, not just games.

Enjoy!

kreia
Kreia, from Chris Avellone’s “Knights of the Old Republic II”

One of the best things you can say about a work of fiction is that it changes how you think about life.  To my mind, what makes something truly great Art is if it gives you a new perspective on everyday life.

This might be why a some people don’t think video games are Art. Nobody does anything different after playing, say, Pac-Man.

This is where Chris Avellone‘s games come in.  Avellone’s design philosophy is heavily focused on “reactivity” in gameplay. Last year I wrote about why this means the plots, characters, and mechanics of his games are so thematically integrated.

To summarize briefly: “reactivity” means that the game world reacts to the player character’s choices.  Rather than just being a set series of tasks the player performs to advance the story, a reactive game environment means the player can influence what happens in the game world.  This means a game has multiple endings at a minimum, and usually different ways to complete tasks or different story arcs to follow as well.

Reactivity makes for a satisfying game experience.  You feel like you are really participating in the game-world, rather than just pressing buttons to turn the pages in someone else’s story.

This is where the “applicable in real life” part comes in: people like reactivity in the real world, too.  We don’t typically think of it in those terms, but it’s true.  People like to feel like their actions mean something.

Usually, people are at their most unhappy when they feel powerless. We want to feel like we have some measure of control in our lives, and some input in what happens in the world. We never have total control, of course, just as the player of a game doesn’t either–there is always the possibility of losing.

For example, people like it when other people listen to them. If somebody presents an idea, they like other people to engage with it, rather than just dismiss it. At a basic level, listening to people’s ideas is a kind of a reactivity–it sends the message that their input matters.

The fact that people like it when you listen to them isn’t a revelation. A guy named Dale Carnegie wrote at length about it in the 1930s. So did Stephen Covey in the 1980s. But reactivity is a handy way of understanding the concept.  If you think of everyone as a player character in their own video game, you know that what they are looking for is the opportunity to influence the world.

I’ve heard lots of criticisms of video games over the years, but Jeff Vogel’s critique that they have too many words is a new one. He makes a strong case against one particular game–Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity. After reading his article, it’s hard to argue against the claim that Pillars is too verbose. The character creation and menu screens are packed with tons of text for the player to wade through.

I’m less sure about whether this is really a trend in gaming generally. After all, Pillars was explicitly designed as a throwback to the beloved text- and lore-heavy Black Isle RPGs. For example, Planescape: Torment has over a million words. Even I tended to ignore some of the esoteric descriptions in Planescape, and I love that game.

Scene from “Planescape: Torment”

Some players really do seem to enjoy the atmosphere of a game rich with background material. It may be true that much of the information is irrelevant to the game’s mechanics, but this is High Fantasy, and one of the things High Fantasy fans look for is a sprawling world filled with many interesting details that don’t all fit into the main narrative.

Using lots of words is indeed a problem, as Vogel says, but not just in games. The High Fantasy trope of giving tons of background information can be traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Pillars of Eternity intro is nothing next to the dense opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. In general, when writing in a genre, you will try to emulate the most successful authors in that genre, so it’s hard to blame Obsidian for looking to the work of Tolkien and his successors for ideas.

I myself have never been a fan of this style. And that’s despite the fact that some of my influences favored verbosity. Take H.P. Lovecraft for example–he was a pioneer in writing horror, but he tended to go overboard with some of his descriptions. I think some of that crept into my own early attempts at writing horror.

It’s much easier to use too many words than to use just the right number. The old line about “writing a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one” applies.  It’s easy to waste words, and that dilutes their intended effect.

The economy of any piece of writing is a very important consideration, but few people ever think about it. It wasn’t until I saw the movie Lawrence of Arabia that I really learned to appreciate it.

Think of it this way: whenever you write something, eventually you will have to stop. You only have so many words before you have to hit send, or mail it to the publisher, or whatever. While the supply of words is theoretically infinite, in practice it’s severely limited–by the reader’s attention span if nothing else.

So, you want to maximize the value you get per word. What do I mean by “value”? Well, it’s whatever idea or feeling you are trying to communicate in your writing. If it’s an informational document or a bit of technical description, then you want to be as clear and concise as possible. If you are writing a character who prefers to communicate non-verbally or who is just mysterious, you use few words, and you make them vague and open to interpretation.

Sometimes there is value in deliberately using too many words. The dramatist W.S. Gilbert (another of my favorites) would often have characters say things in as complicated and lengthy a way as possible for comic effect. “Quantity has a quality all its own,” as they say in big organizations.

Vogel is right that the Pillars opening screens are bad at conveying information. They could have communicated the same points more succinctly. But the problem is that in addition to giving the player some information, they are also supposed to be atmospheric. And you usually need more–or at least different–words to create an atmosphere than to just convey information.

It’s a difficult balancing act–the writer(s) must both communicate technical detail about how to actually play the game while also keeping the player immersed in the virtual world in which the story is set. (For an example of a character creation intro that is more integrated with the game and doesn’t bore the player, I recommend Fallout: New Vegas-also by Obsidian.)

The “optimal” number of words is dependent on what the writer is trying to convey, as well as on the medium they are using. Obviously, a screenwriter is going to use fewer words than a novelist to describe the exact same scene, because the screenwriter knows they will have actors and sets that will communicate certain things visually.

To summarize, all writers, regardless of their subject, style or genre, should follow Einstein’s advice: “Everything should be as simple as possible–but no simpler.”