Cause and (Mass) Effect

Welcome back to another Monocled Gamer! Today, I want to talk about my favorite game: Mass Effect 2. Yes, 2. Not 1 and definitely not 3. 4 is right out.

More specifically than just raving over why Mass Effect 2 is one of the greatest games ever made (which I could do for hours), I want to compare it to the new-in-2017 Mass Effect: Andromeda and why one succeeded as compared to the other.

Even more specifically than that, I want to have this discussion solely based on the WRITING of the games. This post is meant to be a snapshot of comparison, not a comprehensive analysis.

So Mass Effect 2


Mass Effect Andromeda

I feel that this comparison can be broken down into two major factors:

  1. Characters That Are More Like People Than Facsimiles (See previous entries on character writing for more thoughts on this)
  2. Focused Narrative


Ultimately, the characters of any story are the most direct means through which we learn. Their interactions teach us about each being’s values as well as where they fit in the world. Their observations and histories inform our own. Especially in games, such as much of the Bioware catalog, where the player creates their own avatar in game, characters are the core bridge to narrative engagement.

Among myriad other effects, this also means that players will often feel out-of-place character moments more quickly than any other story inconsistencies. It’s why the precise choices of Captain America and Iron Man in Marvel’s Civil War event (movie or comic book) often don’t quite add up when you stop to think about them.

Mass Effect 2 delights in tightly told, restrained interactions with each character whether primary, secondary, or tertiary. While some characters are more cardboard than others―Jacob and Miranda, for example―every significant individual in ME:2’s story experiences some amount of growth. Unless you skip all personal quests, in which case YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.

Each of these individuals has likes, dislikes, families, histories and events that drive their actions. Some are consistently resentful but when you learn why, you can at least understand. Some are eternally optimistic, in spite of their lives. Others become dismal realists in the face of galactic terror. The evolution and decision making of characters drives the narrative forward meaningfully.

On this count, Mass Effect Andromeda still does a great many things right. Characters are varied, if considerably more cardboard overall, and share elements of themselves over time quite effectively. When an intense moment of character development arrives, you engage with it…but may wind up feeling like the payoff was lesser than anticipated. The first reason for this is that characters in ME:A rely on their cardboard characteristics―those infallible traits that you would use to describe them in 2-4 words (i.e., lifelong mercenary for hire; human asari commando; repentant, religious assassin; bookish scientist turned super spy)―more than they should. The second is a problem of…

Narrative Focus

To be blunt, ME:A lacks narrative focus. It attempts to tell many stories and in so doing, dilutes them all. This is a common element of early story drafts. When in the midst of storyboarding or worldstorming, countless ideas will come to mind. What’s most important (after embracing these ideas) is finding the ones that are the most vital to the core narrative you’re trying to tell, and removing the rest.

During my time as a managing editor, I’ve come up with a name for this rule: “Neat but Unnecessary” or NUN for short (NBU is a cruddy acronym to remember).

Mass Effect Andromeda has a lot of cool story moments, but every single one is buried under heaps of NUN Rule violators. By contrast, Mass Effect 2 is a shark of storytelling―it is lean, fast, and muscles you from point to point.

Narrative revelations in Mass Effect 2, either character-driven or plot-driven, happen continuously. Events roll from one to another rapidly but smoothly. Narrative revelations in Mass Effect Andromeda wind up dragging along the baggage of things you missed or forgot in the umpteen other things that have happened since the last revelation. It’s not that you don’t care for the story (at least at first), it’s that so much happens without really mattering that you can’t be bothered to care once something does.

At the end of the day, a story can (and should) be as long as it needs to be. It can be easy to cram it full of extra details, but those details need to add cohesively to the narrative rather than distracting or, worse still, creating brand new questions that may not be answered (*cough*Quarian Ark*cough*).

So as you go on and write whatever it is you’re writing, take time to think about NUNs. Not these

Bubbles GIFs - Find & Share on GIPHY

but those details that are Neat…but UNncessary. Unless you’re writing about actual nuns. In that case, have at it!

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Make sure to let me know what you think in the comments or on Twitter!

Thanks for reading and see you next time.

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