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:
“1984” by George Orwell
“Knights of the Old Republic II” (2004)
“Jane Got A Gun” (2016)
“Eating Bull” by Carrie Rubin
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-Fourby 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 Bullby 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 EffectAndromeda 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.
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.
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.
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: Tormenthas over a million words. Even I tended to ignore some of the esoteric descriptions in Planescape, and I love that game.
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.
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.”
I think it was somewhere in the arboretum of the TranStar corporation’s Talos I space station, about six hours into Prey, that I started to realize what was wrong.
Something had been gnawing at me; a vague sense of discomfort in the back of my mind. It wasn’t the apprehension that every object in every room might turn out to be an alien mimic waiting to ambush me, nor was it the thought that at any minute the possessed remains of crew members might teleport in to attack me with psychic energy blasts.
No, these things I had expected, and indeed become accustomed to.
In fact, that was the problem. What was really bothering me was that none of it was all that scary.
Prey sounds like a game almost engineered to my personal taste. It’s a horror RPG in which you play as Morgan Yu, a scientist on a space station overtaken by mysterious aliens called “the Typhon”. As you explore the station and fight the Typhon, you gradually uncover the backstory by reading logs of deceased crew members, and talking with the few survivors. All the while, you must overcome obstacles placed by Morgan’s brother, Alex–the scientist who seems to be responsible for the disaster.
Some of the Typhon, called “mimics”, have the ability to take any form, including such innocuous items as coffee mugs and even health kits and other useful items. So, you never know what might turn into a monster and attack as you creep through the dark, eerie corridors.
In addition to the usual video game weapons–pistols, shotguns, etc.–Morgan can use an experimental technology called “neuromods”, which grant the user all sorts of abilities, but can erase the user’s memory–a significant point, as it accounts for why Morgan has no memory of events that occurred before the beginning of the game. (This is explained by a character named January–a robot assistant who holds Morgan’s memories and acts as a guide in the early stages of the game.)
Prey has multiple paths and endings, and many different ways of accomplishing your objectives–a style of gameplay I strongly prefer. And to top it all off, Chris Avellone, perhaps the greatest game designer ever, helped write it.
With all this going for it, I was a bit dismayed by how weak the first act was.
Not that it’s bad. It’s good enough. Especially the opening 20 minutes or so; which are very disconcerting and disturbing. Not since Spec Ops: The Line has a game so successfully pulled the rug out from under me. But I’ll talk more about that later. (This is probably a good time to mention I’m going to spoil the game’s plot here, so don’t proceed any further if you want to play it without knowing what happens.)
I reference Spec Ops because it’s another favorite game of mine–again, Prey mimics elements from many of the classics. There are elements of Bioshock(takes place in a remote futuristic art-deco station) Half-Life, (the mimics look like headcrabs) Alan Wake(the shadowy phantoms murmur phrases spoken by the victims they now possess) and Dishonored. (This is only to be expected, since both are made by Arkane studios.) Indeed, there’s so much mimicry here, it makes the clever “not a mimic” marketing slogan seem rather ironic.
And yet… it doesn’t quite work as well as it should in the the beginning. And by “the beginning”, I mean approximately the first five hours after the opening sequence.
It’s like how all-star teams in sports don’t necessarily play up to the potential of all the great players on the roster. This is usually because all-star teams don’t have time to develop chemistry–the sense of timing that makes a team function well as a unit.
Something similar is going on with Prey: it is built up of some very excellent parts, but they don’t always work together to create a coherent whole.
It’s not always clear what Prey is supposed to be. A lot of it looks like survival horror, but it’s not particularly scary. (One exception is an enemy called the Poltergeist. It’s invisible and causes all sorts of disruptions. Very effective, especially the first time it happens.)
Prey‘s setting is also somewhat puzzling. It’s set in an alternate future in which John F. Kennedy was not assassinated, and the U.S. and Soviets worked together on space exploration. But it’s not clear to me why this background was needed for the story. It felt like a gimmick.
Then there are the graphics. They are good, but strangely cartoonish, which makes it hard to take anything seriously. I had this same problem with Bioshock and Dishonored as well. The people in these games all have soft, caricatured features, which creates a feeling of unreality.
I’m not sure why this particular style bothers me more than the outdated graphics of older games like Deus Ex or even Doom 3, but somehow it does.
It is probably true that if I weren’t so well-versed in the simulated experience of exploring a creepy station overrun by monsters, the beginning of Prey might have been a lot more intriguing. If you haven’t played Doom 3 or Bioshock or System Shock 2 or Half-Life orDead Spaceor the Fallout: New Vegas add-onDead Money or… well, if you haven’t played many survival/horror games, everything in Prey will be new and interesting.
To get back to the Arboretum, where I first began to have thoughts of just giving up on Prey–well, I didn’t. I pressed on, and was soon rewarded for my efforts. Because not too long after this, I started to run into some survivors with whom I could actually interact, as opposed to just constantly sneaking around in the dark, trying to alternately fight and run away from the Typhon.
The game really picks up once you start to meet some of the other characters. One suspects there must be a behind-the-scenes reason for this…
Don’t know the exact %, but I did some of the supporting cast (Igwe, Mikhaila, the Cook, Sarah, Danielle/Abigail, etc.) and some lore bits.
Helping officer Sarah Elazar and her men prepare for and then win a battle against Typhon forces massed in a cargo bay was the first really satisfying part of the game, and meeting some characters I cared about (who weren’t already dead) made me feel much more invested in the plot.
Even better were the quests involving Mikhaila Ilyushin. She guides you through a section of the station, and eventually you have the opportunity to get her some life-saving medicine. It’s an optional quest, but really satisfying to complete.
Mikhaila was my favorite character in the game, because the quests relating to her are both rewarding and emotionally “true”. After returning to Morgan’s office, she asks you to find data about her father that is stored in the station’s archives. On finding it, it reveals that Morgan ordered her father’s death. You have the choice of whether to tell her about this, or destroy the evidence. In the end, telling her is ultimately the right choice. “Honesty is the best policy…”
Between her and the security personnel in the cargo bay, I started to care about the story in a way I hadn’t for the first six hours or so. And so I found myself once again heading to the arboretum to meet with Alex, and hear his explanation for the whole thing.
On reaching his office, you learn that in fact everything he’s been doing has been to fulfill orders previously given to him by… you. Alex isn’t evil; he’s just doing what he believed the “real” Morgan would have wanted him to do, before neuromods and other experiments changed his sibling into someone he no longer recognizes.
This was a very powerful plot twist, because the game does a good job of making you hate Alex in the beginning, and then does an equally good job of making you want to work with him. The switch is accomplished very economically, and does not feel at all forced or contrived.
Alex explains that the key to understanding the Typhon has to do with the “coral”–a mysterious luminescent substance they have woven throughout the station as they have taken it over. After you study it further, it confirms what Alex claims Morgan initially suspected: the coral is a neural network.
For me, this development happened at about the 15 hour mark, and I was really getting into the game at this point. I returned to the arboretum (Alex’s office is there) to bring back the data I had collected and upload it for analysis. This, I figured, would trigger the endgame sequence.
But no–the upload gets interrupted by a surprise attack from a mercenary named Walther Dahl. He’s been sent by the TranStar corporation to steal back all the data and kill everyone on the station.
He’s also the most annoying character in the entire game. He blows in at the eleventh hour with his army of military robots, totally disrupting the pace of the narrative. He may have been referenced earlier in the story–although I sure don’t remember it–but certainly not in any way that counts as meaningful foreshadowing. My reaction to his arrival wasn’t “oh, wow; it’s that Walther Dahl guy I heard about earlier”, but instead “who the hell are you?”
It reminded me of Stephen Leacock’s mockery of a common trope in detective novels that explains the crime by concluding: “It was the work of one of the most audacious criminals ever heard of (except that the reader never heard of him till this second)”.
Even worse, Dahl undercuts the main enemy of the game, the Typhon. It’s like in Mass Effect 2 and especially 3, when Cerberus and the Illusive Man kept getting in the way of fighting the Reapers.
I actually found myself rooting for and counting on the Typhon to get rid of Dahl’s inexplicable army of robots for me. This is detrimental to the plot in two different ways: first, it makes you feel sympathy for what had previously been an unambiguous enemy; and second, it undercuts the Typhon’s effectiveness–they can’t be that powerful, if Dahl was able to show up and take over the station in the space of about five minutes.
This whole sequence was undoubtedly the weakest point of the game, and it took about two hours to resolve. (In fairness, defeating Dahl was extremely satisfying, but not so much as to justify his existence in the first place.)
So now, I found myself going back to the arboretum yet again, to do the same thing I had been about to do two hours before, prior to the pointless Dahl episode. And that wasn’t even the worst thing about it–but I’ll get to that later.
There had been several points throughout the game where it seemed like they were just throwing obstacles at me to make everything as hard as possible. There were quests that went something like this:
“Go get some files from a computer on the other side of the station.”
<Goes there, fighting and hiding from Typhon all the way>
“Oh, the door is broken. You have to get parts to fix it.”
“Shoot, the power’s out. Backtrack and turn it on.”
<Goes back; fights more Typhon>
“Hey, the power is out because the reactor is broken. Fix it.”
<Rebuilds nuclear reactor>
“What were we doing again?”
This had been frustrating enough, but the Dahl interruption was just too much. I prefer games in which each objective involves uncovering new information that advances the plot, rather than have most of the objectives be about doing busywork that eventually uncovers information that advances the plot. It felt at times like they were just dragging it out. And this turned out to be a big problem, but again, more about that later.
Once the coral data is analyzed, Alex explains that the coral is used by the Typhon to transmit a signal. Morgan, he continues, had suspected this from the beginning and had designed a device that could destroy the Typhon by taking over the neural network. He suggests using this, instead of following January’s suggestion of activating the station’s self-destruct mechanism.
At this point, a massive Typhon creature appears from deep space and begins to consume the entire station. Morgan then has to choose between whether to destroy the station and the Typhon along with it, or activate the device and destroy the Typhon but keep all the research and technology the team on Talos I has developed.
I chose the latter. I’m always a big one for keeping knowledge–same reason I always leave the Collector base intact at the end of Mass Effect 2. It never hurts to have more technology at your disposal; you can always choose not to use it if you don’t want to.
In either ending, the Typhon are destroyed, and the credits roll. But Prey still has one final twist in store. And it’s significant enough that even though I warned you about spoilers earlier, I’m putting it after the page break…
What always strikes me first about Planescape: Torment every time I start a new game is how weird it is. Your character –called “the Nameless One”–wakes up in a mortuary, apparently as an amnesiac zombie, and is greeted by a floating skull who proceeds to read a message written on the Nameless One’s back.
And that’s just the opening few minutes of what’s at least a 20- to 30-hour game. It doesn’t get less weird after that. You meet a whole host of bizarre characters: a chaste succubus, a living suit of armor, a man who is eternally on fire, a living cube with crossbows… the list goes on. And that doesn’t even address the weird setting–an indescribable world of twisting labyrinths and cities that shift both in physical space and across different planes of reality.
All in all, it’s a strange and disturbing universe that the Nameless One must traverse in order to complete his quest.
And yet, for all the outré creatures and situations you encounter, it always remains possible to relate, even if it’s only in some twisted way, to the humanity of the characters. That is the first piece of genius that points to the heart of Torment’s brilliance: though it is surreal, it is also real on an emotional level–more real, in fact, than many other games that strive for super-realistic graphics and gameplay.
There is a heart to Torment‘s characters, and a logic to its locales and events, because they are all connected by a unifying theme: their relationship to the Nameless One, and how his actions impact all of this is the thread that weaves all these fantastical elements together into a coherent whole.
The fundamental feature of all video games is interactivity. What differentiates games from other art forms is that the intended audience is meant to actively engage with the game. It is not merely a passive experience, but one in which the audience is meant to take some action which in turn advances them towards a goal.
In games with narrative–what we might call “dramatic games”–the player’s actions are supposed to advance the story. By performing an action, the player sees what happens next. In more sophisticated games, the player has some choice of what actions to perform, and these affect the course of the larger story.
The full potential of this storytelling style is seldom realized in most dramatic games. Generally, most stick with the tried-and-true formula of the player advancing a straightforward narrative by performing a set of actions. But in Torment, the concept of interactivity is wedded to the story of the game itself.
One of the central themes in Torment is the idea of “consensus reality”–the idea that by agreeing to believe in something, it becomes effectively “real”. This is also tied to the game’s famous recurring line: “What can change the Nature of a Man?” (In some endings, the Nameless One can argue that “whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can.”)
With its relativistic approach to “reality” (that is, the reality of the game world) Torment acknowledges a little-noted but integral truth of gaming: that the game-reality is subject to the manipulations of the player. In other words, since the player is interacting with the rest of a pre-programmed world, it is ultimately their “reality”, to shape as they see fit.
This is technically true of any game. When you play anything, from Pong to Minecraft to Fallout 4, you are interacting with a virtual world and manipulating it according to your desires. The difference is that Torment is implicitly aware of this, and it makes the player character’s relationship to the world mimic that of the player themselves.
It is this subtle, critical point that makes Torment an all-time classic that’s still being played nearly 20 years since its release.
Nearly everything that happens in the story, and every character who appears in the game, either has previously been or currently is affected by the Nameless One’s actions. The entire game-world is (or can become) a reflection of the Nameless One’s character, either in his current life or in previous ones.
The architect Louis Sullivan famously wrote that “form ever follows function.” He meant this not merely as an architectural philosophy, but as a wide-ranging principle of design.
I’d argue that good design in narrative isn’t so much a matter of form “following” function, but simply form and function being in harmony. In drama, you might decide the “form” (the medium/genre in which you will tell your story) before the “function” (the content/theme of your story), but they had better work well together. That’s why it’s tough to write an action movie that glorifies pacifism, for example.
In Torment, form and function complement one another perfectly: the gameplay involves the player making decisions that alter the world, and the story is about how the Nameless One’s decisions alter the world.
Of course, Torment’s story and dialogue are brilliant on their own merits, and even in another form (it was adapted into a book, after all), the writing hits all the right notes: witty, moving, disturbing, clever and deeply philosophical.
But what makes the lines so powerful, and the intensely introspective storyline so memorable, is the fact that the player is able to make the game their own through their choices. The player and the player character effectively merge, in a way that transcends (I used that word deliberately) the usual emotional distance between player and avatar.
It’s a difficult in any game to get players to really connect with the characters or the setting. They intellectually know it’s all just pixels drawn by a bunch of zeroes and ones. And besides, how much can in-game choices “matter”, if you can just reload and try again if it doesn’t work out?
What’s truly amazing is that Torment should theoretically be less accessible than the average game. The strange setting and characters, forbiddingly odd even by fantasy standards, adds another barrier to the player’s ability to relate to it.
And then there’s the fact that the player character’s “death” means even less than in typical games. He’s immortal; so it doesn’t matter if he gets killed in a fight; he just wakes up again afterwards. In theory, this should make every conflict less emotionally-charged than it otherwise would be.
The designers stacked the deck against themselves, and then overcame the odds to deliver one of the most emotionally compelling games of all time. And so Torment‘s weirdness is not a flaw, but a strength–it adds to its unique flavor.
Throughout this review, I’ve said relatively little about the specifics of the game itself. That’s because the game defies description–and I think that’s because it’s like a mosaic: I can’t explain why it’s beautiful by showing just one tile–you have to see the interconnected nature of the whole thing to understand it. The best I can do is describe the sense I got from looking at it.
If you like dramatic, narrative-driven video games and you like to think, give Planescape: Torment a try. You’ll never forget it.
This is a good example of video game analysis done right. Scott’s description of the different levels of Deus Ex‘s story reminds me of (you guessed it) Gayden Wren’s style of analysis. You know how I love that.
As I’ve mentioned before, Deus Ex is one of my favorite games, and its atmosphere–which the game’s creator Warren Spector called “millennial weirdness”–was one of the major influences on my novella. I recommend watching this review for anyone who doesn’t play games to see what I mean.
Coincidentally, Spector tweeted this today (The embed tweet code isn’t working; sorry):
“When is a game going to win a Pulitzer Prize? Are we ready and deserving of such an honor? Can we at least TRY to be worthy of that? Please.”
Before watching Scott’s video, I probably wouldn’t have said Deus Ex deserved it, but having seen it, I realized that as a piece of “entertainment pseudo-journalism”, I decided it was.
“Reactivity”. “Choice and consequences”. “Influence”. These are the watchwords for the RPGs designed by Chris Avellone.
For example, one of the major features of Alpha Protocol(2010) was the branching path structure of its story, depending on what the player chose to do. The world of Alpha Protocol reacted to the player’s choices, making it feel like they were really changing the story as they played.
More than just being a quirk of game mechanic design, this philosophy permeates the Avellone-led Black Isle/Obsidian RPGs in surprising ways. It goes beyond just being a player ego-stroking mechanism into every aspect of the games.
Planescape: Torment‘s protagonist can influence the story, setting and other characters in countless ways, and while this in itself makes for an interesting game, the mechanic complements the theme of the story: that belief can influence reality itself. Musings on self-fulfilling prophecies and consensus reality are integrated with the structure of the game.
If video games are power fantasies, designed to make players feel like they can impact the world, then these RPGs are both archetypal examples and subtly subversive at the same time. While they allow the player to make all manner of changes to the game world, they also ask the player to reflect on the consequences of their actions.
It is a delicate balance, but in a medium defined by user input, the experience is most satisfying if the need to tell a story is balanced with giving the player choice in how it unfolds–if the story is the player’s story, and the player is not simply a bystander.
In many games, the player is to the game’s plot as Indiana Jones is to Raiders of the Lost Ark. They are at best just there to perform the requisite tasks to fulfill the writer’s story. Not so with Planescape/KotOR II/Alpha Protocol–in these, the player is the story.
Perhaps the most famous of Avellone’s characters is the enigmatic Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. She embodies the philosophy of player choice more so than any other single character. (Her avowed hatred of the predestination element of the Force could be interpreted as opposition to the “railroading” so common in games.)
Kreia is seemingly amoral, allied with neither the Jedi nor the Sith, but uses both to achieve her goals. To gain influence with her, the Jedi Exile (the player’s character) must show that they can make logical choices consistent with furthering their own long-term goals–in other words, that they understand choice and consequence. Kreia doesn’t care if you are good or evil–just so long as you know what you are doing and can strategize to make it happen.
In this way, the game mechanics, characters and story are all fully integrated. The mechanics reinforce the characters who reinforce the theme. This level of coherence is what produces a truly satisfying experience. When game mechanics clash with the theme or the story, the player feels subconsciously confused.
Since games, unlike other art forms, rely on user input to tell the story, it only makes sense to center them around the user’s input in every respect. If thematic coherence is what makes Art great, the greatest games should surely be built around the idea of player choice.
I still don’t care for the setting, but I will admit that it is so beautiful and atmospheric I can kind of get past that–it is a seriously gorgeous game, and it is really fun just to wander around the huge open-world with no aim, admiring the scenery.
But of course, this is a Bethesda production, so the minute you start to run into anything related to the plot or characters, things get silly. The major issue so far in the game is that dragons are attacking the land for some reason, even though everyone thought they had been destroyed a long time ago. The opening sequence of the game involves a dragon attack, which is a shock to all the characters around.
Naturally, we learn that the player character is special, being a “dragonborn”, which gives them the power to absorb dragon souls, or something. And of course there is a prophecy about it all. (First rule of fantasy: there is always a prophecy. I guess they make their prophets in volume.)
My character has already been in five or six battles with dragons, and won all of them by hitting the dragon with a hammer when it lands ten yards away. This makes the dragons seem, frankly, stupid. They could win continually if they just stayed up in the air, or perched somewhere I couldn’t get at them with my hammer. But no, they obligingly allow themselves to be drawn into my kind of fight. It’s the “Cthulhu Problem” all over again.
Then there is the dialogue. In one town that I rolled into while running away from monsters, there is some mystery that has to do with a house being burned down. The locals are too afraid to investigate, because they are, according to the “Jarl” (the executive of the town) “too superstitious”.
I wanted to say to the Jarl “Of course they are! We live in a world where dragons attack people and sorcerers openly summon evil spirits. Just yesterday I was attacked by a gang of reanimated skeletons. You’d be an idiot not to be superstitious in this world!”
(The house mystery, by the way, turns out to be the fault of vampires. And the clues to solving it are provided by ghosts. Yeah, I’d say the people are right to be superstitious.)
Also, there is the recurring problem of people saying essentially “well, hello there, heavily-armed stranger who just ran in three seconds ago from the vast wilderness populated by legions of bandits and bloodthirsty monsters. Here are all the secret intrigues and problems of everyone in town.. Please help fix them.” This problem is to some extent inevitable in a game like this, but I think it could still be handled more deftly.
And then there is the criminal justice system in Skyrim. It’s set up so the guards will attack you if you commit crimes against the people of a given town. Neat idea, but I don’t see how it is that stealing a carrot can be punishable by death, whereas hitting the Jarl in the face with a sword can be forgiven if you put the sword down afterwards. (And yes, Fallout: New Vegas suffered from this too, a bit.)
In short, so far it seems to be Fallout 3 all over again, only more so: awesome scenery and landscape, laughable character interactions, plot and dialogue. And like Fallout 3, I’m having fun with it. More than I expected actually. If they had only gotten Obsidian Entertainment to write it, they would have had another masterpiece on their hands.