on Nov 8, 2012
Film Crit Hulk said something really important in his great big thing on plot holes. Something I haven’t commented on yet. I can’t grab a nice neat quote, because it’s a point that’s more or less woven through the whole article.
But first, let’s get back to that whole “trust” thing I was talking about last time. One thing I find really interesting is how variable our tolerance for plot holes is, even to the point where we can’t agree on what they are or if they matter.
Adam will get stuck on visual continuity. Hey, this guy just happened to have a hat on, then in the reverse shot his hat was gone, then back to having a hat again. This will drive Adam bonkers, to the point where he rejects the entire fiction of the world. My wife once likened these sorts of things to grammatical errors in a book. You can tell what the storyteller is saying just fine but it just bothers some people. It certainly shows a lack of professionalism and polish, but does it ruin the story itself?
Bob will see this same sequence and shrug. Bah, movies are like that. It’s not the point of the story. But someone will act out of character and Bob will flip out. I simply can’t believe that Sylar would behave in this way after being a brain-devouring monster last season! Bob is rejecting the actions of a fictional person, as if his picture of Sylar was more accurate than that of the writer who created Sylar. He is rejecting this, even though doing so is causing him to stop enjoying a show he previously loved.
Then Carla comes along saying, Pffft. What do you expect from a superhero story? That’s how these things work. If you can’t handle a heel-face-turn then you’re watching the wrong genre of show. And then Carla sees a scene where military guys are saluting each other out of uniform, at the wrong times, using the wrong jargon, with the wrong hand. And since she spent 4 years in the military this looks ridiculous to her. It’s like if the mayor held a press conference in a chicken suit and nobody noticed. It’s just so… wrong!
Dan, having no military knowledge, doesn’t even notice this saluting stuff, but it drives him crazy that the bad guy keeps showing up and attacking the heroes without having a clear plan or goal.
And so it goes. Some of these are plot holes. Some of these are basically editing errors. Some are problems with tone or characterization. But they all end up getting called plot holes and they all end up causing someone, somewhere to exit the story.
Maybe it’s just my programming background, but I liken plot holes to bugs. (And we’re talking actual immersion-breaking plot holes here, not after-the-fact fridge logic.) You probably can’t get rid of them all. More importantly: Software doesn’t exist for its own sake. You don’t write a word processor because you want five hundred thousand lines of meticulously documented and rigorously formatted lines of bug-free code. You write it because you want a word processor. Having clean code is an unobtainable ideal, and reaching for it is a means to an end.
There will always be a few problems lingering somewhere in the work, and your goal as the designer is to make sure they are rare and minor. If there are too many or if they are too big, then the whole thing breaks.
But why does it break? Why can we accept some flaws and not others? Why do we overlook some plot holes and others drive us out of stories that we want to enjoy?
The Mechanics of Story Collapse
Inside [the story], what [the author] relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.
This is story collapse. It’s the point at which you’re ejected from the story and are stuck outside looking in. It’s the Blue Screen of Death of storytelling, If you remember my write-up on Fable 2…
Waaaaait a second… I’m supposed to give up all my weapons and go into the bad guy’s lair? Why don’t I BRING my weapons, and just kill him? And while I’m thinking about it, why did I go to all this hassle to apply for work for a guy I was trying to murder? Because Theresa said so? But what is her plan, exactly? Why am I listening to her at all? Because she’s supposedly my friend? She doesn’t feel like one. She’s sketchy and untrustworthy and always goes against my goals of killing Lucien. I don’t know her plan, or his. This is a fight in which I have no stake and nobody has a clear goal.
That first item: “Give up all my weapons and go to the bad guy’s lair.” That wasn’t a singular failure of the story. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s the point where I stopped believing in the world, but it’s not the point where the storyteller failed. They failed much sooner, back when they wrote a story where none of the characters were understandable or relatable, and where the world didn’t have any rules that meant anything to the player.
A break in trust brings scrutiny. Scrutiny uncovers more problems. Trying to explain or understand problems leads to more problems and more questions. Eventually it hits some kind of critical mass and we have story collapse. Then we go back and point to all the plot holes we uncovered while we were trying to mentally triage the problems with the story.
Getting back to what Film Crit Hulk was talking about in his article: He suggested that the real problem isn’t plot holes, but thematic or emotional failures. Looking back over games where I really raged out over plot holes, I see they also failed thematically or emotionally. They failed to resonate or ring true.
Fable 2 was a train wreck on all three levels. The game presented you with a clear goal, and then all of the gameplay sent you in the opposite direction of that goal. In a movie this conflict would need to be the center of the story: Why isn’t this guy doing what seems so obvious to the rest of us? If you trusted the author you might suggest this was some sort of subversive comment on player agency, but since all of the other characters are just as vacant and arbitrary, it’s pretty clear this is just amateur storytelling. This is a child saying, “This happened, then this happened, then this happened, the end.”
I mentioned a ton of problems with Fable 2, and nearly all of them took the form of, “Why am I doing X?” Theresa gave you stuff to do, and it was always stupid nonsense. Would the game have worked if the storyteller hadn’t so horribly failed at portraying this alleged friendship, and if the tone of the main story fit the tone of the world in which it was set? I suspect it would have. The Max & Sam storyline wasn’t any more plausible than the stuff I was doing, but it was more in keeping with the tone of the world and it didn’t require me to do things that went against my goals.
(If you don’t remember, Max & Sam were a couple of hapless rubes who constantly unleashed demons or ghosts or other threats into the town, usually as a result of mucking about with magic. They were as dumb as the other characters, but they fit the tone of the world instead of running against it.)
Yes, the entire plot of Fable 2 was balderdash. But maybe that’s not why it failed. Maybe it failed because the relationship between Theresa and the protagonist didn’t work and the rivalry between the protagonist and the villain didn’t drive the story. If those two things had clicked then I might have given the main plot the same leeway I gave to Max & Sam.
(Then again, if the storyteller had the skill to make those two things work, they probably wouldn’t have made such astounding blunders with such a simple story. I admit there’s a certain tautology to this line of reasoning: “Maybe the story wouldn’t have been so horrible if it hadn’t been written so horribly.”)
I really raked Assassin’s Creed 2 over the coals for the logic-defying idiocy that was carnevale. It’s true that not a single thing in that sequence made a lick of sense. But it’s also true that the game lost its emotional voice at about that point. There was no tension between the characters. Ezio was nothing more than a walking knife. His friends had no depth or purpose, happy to stand around the brothel and give him busywork to do like World of Warcraft quest givers. The audience didn’t feel any emotional drive to kill the guy we were supposed to be killing and the story had long since lost sight of the overarching goal.
Indigo Prophecy began strong as a mystery story focused on a small group of characters. For me, the game broke when you had to escape the cops using your super-powers. That wasn’t even a plot hole. The story explained why you could do those things, but it didn’t fit the character or the setting. It was like inserting a Matrix-style bullet-time kung-fu fight into The Fugitive. It’s wrong. It’s wrong even if you add an in-universe explanation for the super-powers, because it’s wrong thematically and doesn’t flow from what came before. I extensively cataloged the events of the plot here, just in case you just want to read something massive for no reason.
(I’m leaving the Mass Effect series out of the list because the changing lore and tone across three games make it really hard to make this comparison without getting into long debates that we’ve already gnawed to the marrow. There’s another conversation to be had about plot-holes that only manifest as a result of stitching two or more works together with continuity. As I said at the start of Mass Effect 3: I’m not sure how I would feel about the game if I didn’t have the tone and lore of the first game creating unfulfilled expectations. Let’s set it aside for now.)
Did these stories fail because their plots stopped making sense? Or was the nonsense plot a side-effect of the thematic and character mishaps? To put it another way: Does an overabundance of plot-holes lead to story collapse, or does the story collapse first, and then we begin noticing the plot-holes that were already there?
Again, I bring up Deus Ex: Human Revolution. That story worked for me. I was invested in the central characters and wanted to believe in their world, and so the rest held together. It’s not that the plot holes weren’t there or that I wasn’t paying attention, it’s that the emotional connection carried me past those moments.
Lots of games fail to make sense, and they work anyway. Hotline: Miami presents two overlapping but contradictory timelines. The Path is mercilessly obtuse, to the point where you can’t interpret the thing literally. Thirty Flights of Loving is cryptic, non-linear, and occasionally baffling. But I never threw my hands up at these games saying, “This sucks! The writer had no idea what they were doing! It’s all random nonsense!” It all goes back to that trust thing.
I’m not saying that logic, continuity, and clarity don’t matter. They do. But if we’re noticing these things it might be a sign the story has already failed us on a more important and fundamental level. This is an idea that I’ve been working on for a few days now. I keep looking over old broken stories and tracing them back to their failure points, looking for the source of the story collapse. It’s an interesting exercise.
In the next post I’ll wrap this up with some talk about how the pacing of videogames presents unique opportunities for plots to go horribly wrong.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.