Friday, July 20, 2012

Storytelling - Mystery

I love stories.  Stories can open your mind and make you see things in a different light than what you currently see them in.

Conversely, bad stories can open your mind and make you see things in a different light that makes you wish the lights had never been turned on.

One very poor, but sure, sign of a bad storyteller is when something that is a mystery is revealed when it is unnecessary for the story to advance.  Obviously, in a mystery novel the main mystery must be revealed, otherwise there isn't really a book.  So what do I mean?

I'll give you two examples of where a mystery was revealed and because of this the story broke down.  The first we'll talk about is Star Wars, something very near and dear to my heart.  When Darth Vader first walks onto Princess Leia's Corellian Corvette (the ship at the beginning of Star Wars) I knew all that I needed to know.  He was the one dude in the black suit amid a bunch of white.  He stood out as the bad guy.  He was a dude that thirsted for power and reveled in it and no one was gonna mess with him.  And all this you can gather in the first few seconds of screen time.  Later on Obi-Wan is talking to Luke and says that Vader was a pupil of his but he turned to the Dark Side.  There's some back story and it's relevant and more importantly concise.  It also sets up what happens later in the film when Obi-Wan and Vader head off.  It adds some tension to the fight scene because you knew that they were once friends.

Obi-Wan, in just a few lines, explains everything that you need to know about Vader.  There is no need to make three horrible prequels to explain this.  For one it cheapens the experience of the original story because Vader was a crybaby in the prequels, the antithesis of his character in Star Wars.  For another, as I've already established, we already know everything we need to know to grasp the character of Darth Vader.

Anakin Skywalker, crybaby

Darth Vader, badass
Okay, so that was a prequel, a twenty year afterthought.  Let's look at a mystery that was revealed in a direct sequel which totally ruins the experience in two terrible games called Mass Effect 2 & 3 (although 3 is bad from a purely storytelling sense, not actual gameplay...well, some gameplay).

I loved Mass Effect on PC.  Aside from some technical aspects it was a solid game, in play and story.  At the end of it you're introduced to Vigil, a VI construct of a Prothean, a long dead alien race, whom you never see and always understand very little about.  You also don't see what the Prothean looks like as the data has degraded over the millennia.  However he is a cool, unseen character and adds some desperation to you as the main character in that it makes you want to hunt down Saren and Sovereign, ::SPOILERS:: who is in fact a Reaper ::END SPOILERS::.  Throughout the whole game Protheans are integral to the story in the sense that they provide clues to what in the universe is going on.  Vigil provides the last piece of the puzzle and fulfills his mission.  And that's it.  You never really find out much about them, other than what was needed to complete the story.

However, in Mass Effect 2, you discover that the badguys, called Collectors, are actually ::SPOILERS:: the remains of the long dead Protheans who have been modified by the big badguys to do their bidding ::END SPOILERS::.  I'll admit that this could have been cool, but the way it was executed was so poorly done that it just seemed a cheap plot twist, because the Protheans had nothing to do with the second game, so there wasn't any build up.  However, in Mass Effect 3 they reveal that  ::SPOILERS:: there was one Prothean who still remained and he wasn't anything like the ancient race which was slightly revealed in the first Mass Effect ::END SPOILERS::.  Plus he was a complete and total ass-hat, which ruined the entire experience of the first game.  And do you know what that added to the story?  Nothing.  It didn't matter one bit.  ::SPOILERS::  When Sovereign was revealed as an actual Reaper in the first Mass Effect instead of just a Reaper ship, that was a revealed mystery that changed the nature of the narrative  ::END SPOILERS::.  It was exciting and fruitful.  But the reveal that Protheans were tyrannical, slaving douchebags, not some advanced, benevolent alien species didn't help the story.  It made me want to side with the Reapers and kill all sentient life, because who wants to end up like that?  Which is not good storytelling.

Vigil, unseen Prothean in Mass Effect
Javik, somehow alive Prothean in Mass Effect 3

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