Plot Holes Part 2: Story Collapse

  By Shamus   Nov 8, 2012   119 comments

splash_hole.jpg

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.

Blue Screen of AWESOME BUTTON!

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

In his essay On Fairy Stories, J. R. R. Tolkien says:

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

Lucien, the villain, will oppose your quest. His motivation is “I am the villain and I will oppose your quest.” Your quest is to get revenge on him for opposing you.

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.”

Fable 2: Roleplay as the dumbest badass in history.

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 can’t tell who this is in the picture, because he’s wearing a mask.

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.

These quicktime events are REALLY difficult because you’re usually laughing too hard to play.

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.

The Path by Tale of Tales

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.

A Hundred!19119 comments. Quick! Add another to see if this message changes!


  1. Rack says:

    This story put me in mind of a recent study that stated the rational part of the brain and the emotional part of the brain don’t function at the same time. This would be why as long as you are emotionally engaged with the story it can get away with almost anything, but once it has pushed beyond that point it is almost impossible to re-engage with it.

    • Taellose says:

      I saw that story too, and that’s actually a really good application of its findings that I had not thought of.

      • Dreadjaws says:

        This sounds interesting. Any of you happen to have a link to it?

        • LunaticFringe says:

          I believe what he’s referring to is called ‘amygdala hijacking’, where the amygdala, based on what information the hippocampus provides (i.e. your personal experiences), can override the neocortex. I’d provide a source but the only one I have is in regards to political beliefs and I don’t want to go down that road.

  2. Shamus I think what you are trying to describe is the tipping point of consistency vs inconsistency.

    As soon as a game stops being consistent (a very subjective view indeed) the flaws start being noticed more and more.

    As long as a game feel consistent, you remain immersed and you can easily ignore issues.

    EDIT: So I guess objectively speaking a game need to be consistent with itself.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      “So I guess objectively speaking a game need to be consistent with itself.”

      Yes.Internal consistency is the most important part of any story,in my opinion.You can have pink dragons in modern world if you want,as long as you set them up,explain or outline the rules for them in this story,and then stick to them,and your story can still work well.But the second you break those rules,the story will fail.Heck,one of the most absurd worlds I know of,the discworld,is still well constructed because it is internally consistent.

      Which is why I dont think mass effects 2 and 3 are good stories:They are inconsistent both with their prequels,and with themselves.

      • Mike S. says:

        But Discworld isn’t consistent. Characters change to the point of being unrecognizable from their first appearance, timescales vary from book to book, elements are introduced later that should, if the author had thought of them, have affected earlier stories. Pratchett went so far as to lampshade the fact and incorporate it into the universe with the Time Monks, including at least one incident in which the entire world was destroyed and patched together imperfectly.

        Which arguably makes it another example of the way a reader will overlook or choose to tolerate inconsistency, as long as they haven’t fallen out of the story.

        • ehlijen says:

          But the disc world isn’t one story. Each book on its own is consistent with itself, and that’s all that matters for getting the reader to keep going to the last page.

          If prattchet had advertised the world as an ongoing series, rather than selling each book as its own story, your point would stand. But I believe the fact that between the end of each book and the start of the following there is a implied statement that you are reading a new, different story, each of which sets up its own rules anew where needed.

          • Mike S. says:

            I think that’s an Adam/Bob/Carla thing. In-series consistency is differently important to different people. Some viewers will grumble about the fact that the device from three Trek episodes ago would sure be helpful in this episode (or be thrilled when, in Stargate or Babylon 5, someone actually brings it up), and some won’t.

            A lot of Discworld’s richness comes from the interactions between the stories. Like most readers, I can live with the fact that the early Patrician or Granny Weatherwax is hard to reconcile with their later appearances. (Some fans even suggested the early Patrician wasn’t Vetinari, but Pratchett says he was.) But if, say, Carrot showed up in a Lancre novel as a cold-blooded murderer without explanation, I think it’s safe to say that would drop most longtime Discworld readers out of the story. And I don’t think “this is a different story, with its own rules” would save it.

            • ehlijen says:

              But it doesn’t retroactively break the old stories. In fact the fact that the old story worked ‘better’ than the current one is what kicks you out.

              My point was that for the discworld novels, loss of trust would be compartmentalised to one or a few books. Trust in the series as a whole might be left intact. If it was a single story, such compartmentalisation wouldn’t leave you with enough to like to make up a satisfying whole.

              • Mike S. says:

                It’s arguable that a bad inconsistency is by definition one that kicks you out of the story, and vice versa. As Shamus notes, what that is will vary from reader to reader.

                That Pratchett has a huge fan base that isn’t riven with continuity arguments or claims that he jumped the shark at one point or other (as far as I know– I like his work, but am not deep into the fandom) suggests he’s handled it better than a lot of creators.

                Compare, say, Battlestar Galactica, where you’ll get wide agreement that the first season is great (despite having all sorts of consistency problems that the storytelling and acting carry most viewers past). You’ll also see a widely (though by no means universally) shared sense that the ending completely lost it. But among those viewers, there’s a nigh-infinite range of inflection points for where the decline began, and where it bottomed out.

                The loss of trust, if it happens, does so for different viewers at different points, which makes it hard to specify just what was a bridge too far.

                • silver Harloe says:

                  The ending wasn’t so bad. I mean, it’s terrible that it cliff-hangered and then never had a fifth season. But at least it didn’t have a completely sucky fifth season full of magic and “god did it”. Too bad there was never a fifth season. At least not after I turned those dvds into coasters.

            • Deadpool says:

              It is clear that Prachett didn’t find his footing until after Mort. If you ignore Colour of Magic, Light Fantastic and Equal Rites, then Ventinari, Weatherwax and Ridcully are all pretty consistent.

              To be fair, I haven’t read any of the latest Witch books, but somehow I don’t think this has changed that much since…

              • Mike S. says:

                The characters become more consistent, but there are still continuity blips that people mostly don’t care about. E.g., is the century following the Century of the Fruitbat the Century of the Rat (Feet of Clay) or the Century of the Anchovy (Carpe Jugulum)?

                For most people, that isn’t even something they’d even notice. I noticed, but didn’t much care. (I figured that, as Lois McMaster Bujold likes to say about her own continuity glitches, The Author Had a Better Idea. “Anchovy” is funnier than “rat”, though not as funny as “fruitbat”.)

                Other people noticed, and because they have substantial buy-in, developed elaborate theories to explain the inconsistency away. (E.g., “Centuries are named differently in different areas, and the Century of the Fruitbat was simply an instance of synchronicity.”)

                But a hypothetical reader who had been dumped out of the story could just as easily hold it up as evidence that the author just didn’t care. (And if experience is any guide, get even madder when the Time Monks are introduced as a Get Out Of Errors Free card. :-) )

                • Nimas says:

                  A minor point would be the Granny Weatherwax from Witches abroad compared to Wintersmith in that how she viewed stories seems to be completely opposite. Of course you could say that stuff like ‘character growth’ ;) but I always thought of Granny Weatherwax as a kind of James Bond character, unchanged and unchanging despite whatever the hell you want to throw at her.

                  • Mike S. says:

                    RPG writer Robin Laws has been making an effort to popularize “iconic” to describe the sort of character who’s a constant around whom the world changes (James Bond, James Kirk, Superman), as opposed to dramatic characters who go through arcs and are changed by their circumstances.

                    I think it’s a useful distinction, though these are tough times for iconic characters. One reason it seems to be so hard for Hollywood to get past endless retellings of superhero origin stories is that those are frequently the only dramatic arc superheroes reliably have.

                    Similarly, Tolkien’s Aragorn and Faramir are basically who they are from the moment we first see them: their circumstances change, but they don’t really need to grow and learn, and they don’t. But that simply wouldn’t do for a movie, and so we get a retreaded reluctant ruler plot grafted onto Aragorn, and turn Faramir into a semi-antagonist.

                    (Oddly, Gandalf is allowed to remain basically iconic– if anything, he changes less in his transition from Grey to White in the movies than in the books.)

                    Dramatic characters are often viewed as more realistic. But as a friend of mine once pointed out, what fraction of the people you know have undergone radical personality shifts after reaching adulthood? Some, no doubt. But a lot of us just sort of become more ourselves over the decades.

              • Lord Nyax says:

                Of course the most recent of the Tiffany Aching books ends up referencing Equal Rites in a fairly substantial way, and if you haven’t read Equal Rites it might seem like a certian character just popped out of nowhere. I just reconcile how different Granny Weatherwax is from here potrayerl in Equal Rites by saying that she was just younger then, and has developed since.

        • Loonyyy says:

          I always read that though as Pratchett being deliberately absurd. Most of the Discworld novels seem semi-satirical, and the whole thing always seems tongue-in-cheek, so I figured that the character inconsistancy was just another example of Pratchett being crazy for the sake of crazy. The best thing about Discworld isn’t Discworld, it’s the absence of rhyme or reason and the deconstruction of tropes.

          So I’d suggest that maybe internal consistency isn’t the most important thing, but thematic consistency. It’s ok to be absurd if you’re aiming for an absurdist tone. Characters violating their character is just them being crazy in a crazy world.

          • Mike S. says:

            I don’t think that, for example, Granny Weatherwax’s evolution was an exercise in absurdity. If anything, she becomes less absurd over time– and retroactively so, so that it’s not just a matter of character development. And I think that’s true for the series in general: characters and places start out as a mishmash of fantasy tropes, but become defined and develop identities, to the point that they can’t just do anything that fits the story anymore.

            Pratchett’s Time Monks are in part an in-continuity incorporation of the MST3K rule. But they’re also kind of a backhand acknowledgment that the Discworld had become “real” enough that people were starting to ask those sorts of questions.

        • Kdansky says:

          That’s not the full extent of the problem. Discworld novels were written over the timespan of 30 years, and Pratchett has refined his definition of the Discworld all the time. But the books are relatively consistent by themselves, and quite a few even make sense in small groups. Last, but not least, a large number of characters were non-recurring, and most of those for good reasons: Rincewind was (while iconic) not actually very interesting, while Granny Weatherwax makes more sense when she is not the protagonist, but instead the mentor (see Wee Free Men). Characters also change naturally, such as Recruit / Sgt / Cpt / Commander Vimes. In the twenty years of Ankh-Morpok history, he changed dramatically, but without losing consistency.

          On the other hand, Mass Effect 2 takes Cerberus from ME1 and completely redefines them, while insisting that they didn’t change at all. That’s what’s jarring: The blatant lie, and the gigantic retcon. Pratchett doesn’t retcon. He just accepts the fact that his vision of the world changed, and so do the characters. But even if the original Granny was different, she was still about the same theme! And here we are at Hulk again: Theme matters most!

      • Jeff says:

        It’s worth noting that PTerry didn’t really bother with continuity early on.

        One example is with Ankh-Morpork’s layout. According to PTerry in one of the forewords, he just more or less randomly assigned locations in Ankh-Morpork as the stories required. Only when an obsessive fan put them onto a map did he discover the arbitrary distances assigned actually turned out to be consistent. I believe that from that point on, PTerry paid a touch more attention. He also went on record saying it wouldn’t allow it to impede the flow of a story though. Narrativium is an actual element, after all.

        I’m thinking that when the series was tiny, it was less of an issue. Nobody was that invested in the universe, so in-story consistency was the key. Now that there are around 40 books in the same setting, the universe is a lot richer and in-series consistency matters more.

        Trolls are initially portrayed a lot differently in the early books, but while they no longer seem to freeze in the sun nor grow as big as mountains, later details about how Trolls work can actually be applied retroactively to somewhat explain the different depictions of Trolls. (Specifically, someone asked if the reason they froze (and essentially turned to stone) in the early novels had to do with the altitude of that region and the sun’s heat. PTerry basically said “Sure, let’s go with that.)

  3. Nevermind says:

    There’s also this thing with (video)games that makes them stand out from movies and other traditional “passive” stories. In games, you have an avatar; and you have to not only believe in the story: you have to believe it’s your story. It’s way easier to accept someone’s actions, even though they might be somewhat “out of character”, than to accept actions that are meant to be your own, but are “out of character” for you.

    Example: I really like Half-Life 2’s story. It does resonate with me on the emotional level, I feel connected to its characters and I can relate to them… in short, this story works for me. But the moment Gordon willingly steps into one of those “slave carriers” in the Citadel, I just can’t help but swear in disgust. I would never do that! It’s a purely “logical” breaking point, that does not have anything to do with emotional response, characters etc. It doesn’t even break any established character, because Gordon Freeman is not an established character. And I think I wouldn’t have minded it in a movie. But in a game, where the decision to step into that thingy is supposedly “mine”, it breaks everything.

    • Joshua says:

      Eh, I would say the first time is *slightly* understandable. The second time however……

      • guy says:

        Uh, the second time will be after the results of the first time, and Gordon could reasonably conclude that they bring only good things after getting the blue gravity gun.

        • swenson says:

          Yeah, actually the second time works better for me. It’s the first time that makes me stop and shake my head every time, even if I do really enjoy the gameplay of the Citadel section (and, to be fair, the whole office scene and ending). My first time through, I couldn’t even figure out what I had to do–I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of actually getting in that thing, because why on earth would I do that?

    • Mike S. says:

      Given the limits of game design, there are probably always going to be choices that can’t be made, so it’s an interesting question how far is too far. I realized at a certain point that the most rational choice for my Breton character in Skyrim would be to leave Skyrim. It wasn’t her home, and it was being fought over by an Empire that had tried to execute her and a rebellion full of racists who didn’t want her there. (And for a long time, she hadn’t discovered any of the Dragonborn save-the-world stuff, so it wasn’t a factor.) But of course you can’t do that, and few would consider it a major failure of game design that a game called “Skyrim” won’t let you leave Skyrim.

      By contrast, pretty much everyone thinks that the railroading that forces Shepard to work for Cerberus is a flaw in the game, whether or not it’s actually game-breaking. In both cases, the reason the character can’t make the reasonable decision is because there wouldn’t be a game. But the buy-in is higher for Mass Effect for a number of reasons, which probably start with the kind of issues Shamus associates with “Bob” in the example. The Skyrim protagonist is a blank slate, but by ME2 Shepard is a known character we’ve shaped a certain way. (I wonder if people coming to the series with ME2 had any problems with it.)

      • Nevermind says:

        Well, Gordon Freeman is pretty much a blank slate too.

        Of course, no game can ever have all possible choices available. And worse than that, for any number of actually available choices, there always exists a player somewhere who requires some unavailable variation. We humans are all different like that. But that doesn’t mean games should not even try.

        Then again, we usually accept a lot of limitations as “part of the game rules”. It’s pretty easy to not think about leaving Skyrim as an option, because Skyrim IS the game world. We can kinda accept that there is literally nothing else. Working for Cerberus, however, feels worse, because the game allows Shepard to work for any number of people (while insisting that he “works for Cerberus” all this time), so it’s relatively harder to accept as a game rule.

      • Jeff says:

        The thing is that when you bought Skyrim it was to play in Skyrim. If you don’t intend to play it, then you shouldn’t have bought it. The character you make should fit in the game.

        (Tangentially, this reminds me of those D&D characters that don’t want to be adventurers and aren’t qualified to adventure. Unless the DM makes some contrived reason for the party to take them along, the only reasonable in-character course of action for the party would be to not adventure with the non-adventurer liability.)

        In contrast to Mass Effect 2, it’s “Mass Effect 2″ not “Cerberus Effect”, and you already have an established character that was professionally opposed to Cerberus, and may be personally hostile as well.

        When you bought Skyrim, you signed up to adventure in Skyrim. When you bought Mass Effect 2, you did not sign up to be a cog in an idiot-machine.

        • Mike S. says:

          That’s somewhat fair if you bought ME2 completely blind, but it took a fair amount of effort not to know that Shepard was working for Cerberus in it. (Which somewhat annoys me, since I try to avoid spoilers myself. But aside from going into an isolation booth, there was no way of avoiding the knowledge that, say, ME3 would begin with the Reaper invasion of Earth.)

          Which isn’t to say that it couldn’t have been better justified– especially given Shepard’s previous experiences. (In a later playthrough, I just had Shepard not talk to Admiral Kahoku or follow up the clues. That, plus avoiding Jack’s loyalty mission, made it pretty easy to do a Paragon Shepard who accepted Miranda’s and Jacob’s reassurances at face value.) Nor does it mean that Cerberus’s projects don’t backfire against its own goals (let alone Shepard’s) to the point of self-parody.

          By the same token, the player knows going in that Skyrim is set in Skyrim, but (sans spoilers) not that Skyrim is a hostile work environment for non-Nords without particular loyalty to the Imperium.

  4. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Interesting that you bring up fahrenheit there,a game that was planned and written as a trilogy,but ordered to be made as a single game half way true.Which is obvious,and obviously why it fails.Mass effect was also planned as a trilogy,but there was no order from the powers that be to rush it out.Yet it still fails.

    • Kdansky says:

      >Mass effect was also planned as a trilogy.

      I don’t believe that for a second. They always say that when the first one is a success, but it’s not even called “Mass Effect 1″, but just “Mass Effect”. It’s a marketing lie.

      • Robyrt says:

        Mass Effect, like Star Wars, could easily have been planned as a trilogy but built as a standalone work to cover the bases in case the first one wasn’t popular. If they really didn’t plan on making a sequel, you would have stopped the Reapers at the end of the first game.

        • Mike S. says:

          Yeah, that and the decision-tracking in the save file both point to them intending some sort of series. It’s probably safe to say that sequels (and maybe the trilogy structure) were planned on, but not planned out.

          The specifics of things like titling doesn’t even necessarily come from the writers, since it’s a marketing decision. (Compare the way that the writers made some serious efforts to make both male and female Shepard work interchangeably, while marketing overwhelmingly favored male Shepard.) And Marketing presumably has to decide if that “1” will draw people in (“get in at the start of a big thing”) or put them off (“it’s not even a complete story?”).

          Example: the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies were shot together (sort of; a lot of the sequel footage was later replaced due to a director change). So they knew there’d be a II, and even announced it in the end-credits of the first movie. But they were still “Superman: the Movie” (no number) and “Superman II”.

        • anaphysik says:

          The original Star Wars does not feel like part of a trilogy, and claiming it does is an after-the-fact rationalization. It’s a standard ‘beat the bad guy’ story with elements from the pulp serials that Lucas drew aesthetic inspiration from thrown in.

          Lucas’ claims to having planned out the trilogy beforehand are as spurious as BioWare’s. The primary difference is that Lucas’ (first two) continuations were well-written enough to avoid overly clashing with the original.

      • Klay F. says:

        The reason we say that it was planned as a trilogy is because we are going off evidence that this was originally the case. There are interviews with Bioware devs before the first game was even finished, about how Mass Effect was a planned trilogy. I distinctly remember tons of game journalists being openly incredulous about whether something so audacious would have a chance in hell of success.

      • Mass Effect was a trilogy from the very beginning. Not just when it was successful, but before the first game was even released. That was part of how Microsoft sold it when it was announced (http://news.teamxbox.com/xbox/9428/Mass-Effect-Announced/): “Players’ decisions and actions will serve to shape the destiny of all life in the galaxy as you become absorbed in the story that is “Mass Effect,” the first game in an epic trilogy from BioWare.”

        • anaphysik says:

          There is a very large difference between ‘we had a trilogy planned out’ and ‘we planned to make a trilogy.’ BioWare were squarely in the latter camp.

          • Kdansky says:

            It’s the difference between “we think we can make this into three parts” versus “there will be a cliff-hanger in the end”

            Transformers, Matrix, Pirates of the Carribean: Two or more parts tacked on.
            Lord of the Rings, Star Wars: Total cliffhanger, definitely planned from the beginning. Both make this clear from the very first scenes!

            You know how you can tell whether it’s a planned sequel? If it’s better or at least just as good as the first one, it was planned, because with a movie, you spend a lot of time on introductions, but the second part can get to the meaty bits faster. If it’s way worse, it got made because of MONEY!

            Blabbing after the marketing guys and repeating their lie (“it was planned!”) is just fanboyism.

            • Given what’s been seen of his writing and directing legacy, I think you can put Star Wars firmly in the “we plan to make a trilogy” camp rather than the “we’ve got a trilogy planned out.”

              Lucas had to re-write the original Star Wars several times, mostly because he kept getting told to stop ripping off Dune, he tacked on “Episode IV” after the first print was finished, and given that he basically inserted his idea of toy marketing into the third film (Ewoks instead of Wookies), his “master plan” is pretty much revealed as baloney.

              As for the prequel trilogy, all he had to do was start from Anakin as a kid and end with him becoming Darth Vader. They were going to make money no matter what. A pity nobody seemed to care about making them actually good.

              • Peter H. Coffin says:

                Not to mention, the official overall scope of Star Wars has changed several times over the years, from a high of “12 more” right after Star Wars was solidly established as a huge smash, at the end of 1979, to “three trilogies” in the early 1980s, then down to “that’s it, there ain’t no more” by about 1985, the up to “There’s always been six planned” in about 1998.

            • Mike S. says:

              Counterpoints: Superman II (in either cut) is arguably not as good a film as Superman: the Movie, despite being planned from the beginning.

              The Lord of the Rings is arguably a better book than The Hobbit, despite not being planned.

      • Dragomok says:

        Well, EA did say near launch that they wanted to make not only two, but five more full-fledged Mass Effect games. I’m just not sure whether that was before or after the reviews came out.

      • Felblood says:

        Actually, no.

        Mass Effect was billed as a trilogy almost from announcement. The promise that our choices would have meaningful consequences 2 games from now is one of the major reasons that Mass Effect 1 was such a success, and the breaking of that promise is one of the chief reasons that this season of Spoiler Warning is so angry.

        Every time you hear Shamus complaining that one of our decisions in a previous game is glossed over with a texture swap, or reduced to +20 war assets, he is calling out EA for this broken promise.

        I’m glad I never let myself believe that beautiful lie, or I would be super pissed right now.

  5. UtopiaV1 says:

    So Shamus, you’re going back thru games, looking for the bit where the story broke, then reverse-engineering it to find out what went wrong? I guess you’ve noticed that’s a very ‘programmer’ way of looking at, and fixing, things. When it doesn’t compile, go back thru the code, put break points at suspect areas, find out at what specific logical or syntactical error is, then (if it’s your code) fix it.

    Anyway, great stuff so far, I’m interested to hear if there are any other ways a story could break its immersion, such as bad pacing or if your target audience doesn’t agree with the protagonists’ goals, etc.

  6. Loonyyy says:

    By Max and Sam, are you referring to Sam and Max, Freelance Police? It’s just round the other way to the way I’ve usually seen it referenced.

    Always meant to get into that.

  7. Nidokoenig says:

    I wonder if video games are more likely to have plot holes noticed because games are fundamentally a thinky, left brained activity, building on what MrGuy said in the previous thread.
    Aside from the issues of trust and consistency, video games are fundamentally about the player being given a set of tools, some info and a heap of problems to analyse and try to overcome. Unless the challenges in your game are utterly trivial and banal, most people are going to be in thinky mode to some extent, even in conversations, especially in games that have any input on dialogue, because many players recognise that as a system to be gamed, whether they want to use the ability to game it for meta reasons or not.
    We’ve been trained to stay alert for information and tools we can use at all times, and that gets in the way of emotional engagement that makes us more likely to let the small stuff slide. If the story teller can’t make a clear divide between story and gameplay, and between player and player character, it’s harder for the player to feel when they should be switching off, enjoying the ride and not sweating the small stuff.
    Now, games with strong story/gameplay and player/PC separation have their own problems with having less potential for depth of engagement, at least for the many who feel less involvement, but this is trade-off for it being easier to make a story that engages the player at a basic level by presenting a fully-formed story, rather than offer to collaborate in making one that the player may not end up feeling ownership of because the details they’re forced to consider deeply feel wrong.

    • Mike Riddle says:

      A game has multiple possible paths for the story arc to take, whereas a movie/book etc. has only one path. The impact of that is that the player may bypass some information that would better explain a latter event, but since the player never saw it, the player gets his trust “jolted” and then questions other things.

      Also since the player is attempting to “help write” the story (and hopefully write a good one), they have to pay close attention to make the best choices from the stories point of view. So a player is closer to a “co-writer” to a script than a reader of finished book.

      Imagine if a someone wanted to “crowd source” a book. The “author” creates a overview of the story and then asks one person to write an overview of the first act, then that 3 different people write the scenes for the first act. Now a fifth person writes the second act overview and people 6,7,8 write scenes in it. Think how carefully person 8 would need to read the content up to there scene to do a good job, how picky they would have to be.. That is what the gamer is doing, is trying to read the story and move the story forward.

      Another way to look at is, that the gamer needs to predict the story path to play the game. A reader of a book or watcher of a movie does not. And when a player guesses wrong, it stands out because he is heavily invested in that choice.

      • Michael says:

        “Another way to look at is, that the gamer needs to predict the story path to play the game. A reader of a book or watcher of a movie does not. And when a player guesses wrong, it stands out because he is heavily invested in that choice.”

        Unless the player is like me. As long as I’m doing something, however small, even the most egregious errors will get overlooked.

        I mentioned this in Shamus’ previous Plot Holes article, too; it’s the reason I can’t engage with and enjoy non-interactive fiction. I’m either too busy doing something else to notice what’s going on, or I’m actively ripping the world a new one and keeping myself busy in that way.

  8. Trevel says:

    This is very true of my ME:3 ending experience. I loved most of the game — but I internally immediately rejected the kid as a crass attempt to play with my emotions to demonstrate that attacking the Earth is bad (and personalize it in the form of a ten year old kid.)

    You will note that the game took control away from me to do that. I click on “go through the door” — the game goes back to find the kid, instead. THAT IS NOT WHAT I TOLD YOU TO DO, SHEPARD. DON’T YOU HANG UP ON …

    … so when his shuttle exploded, I didn’t think “oh, the Reapers killed him. I feel sad and angry.” I thought “Oh, Bioware killed him so I’d feel sad and angry and be emotionally engaged.”

    And then I rejected the dream sequences as the same heavy-handed clumsy manipulation. For a kid that I don’t care about. You’ll notice again that the game took a fair amount of control from us for the sequence, as well as playing exceedingly differently from the Rest of the Game. (Except, naturally, the ending.)

    And naturally, when he showed up at the end, I already hated him for trying to manipulate my emotions. My fault, I suppose, for confusing Bioware with the Reapers. But the short of it is, I never interacted with the child “in character”. He was always a lurch outside of the game world, every time he showed up. He was already associated with being an annoying intrusion.

    And I loved the rest of the game, including the parts that made no sense. And I *was* emotionally engaged. With Wrex and Garrus and Mordin and Tali and Legion and Liara.

    So maybe it wasn’t a bad ending, in the end. Maybe it was just a really bad beginning.

    • Trevel says:

      I wonder if part of this is a nerd thing — too many comic books, too many games, too many clumsy attempts on our emotions, too many died-but-came-back. When Tara dies in Buffy, I don’t blame the gunman — I blame Joss Whedon. (But at the same time, I get Willow’s rage.)

      That is to say, I’m generally always consciously aware of the metagame, and I’ve been inoculated to blatant attempts at emotional manipulation.

    • Aldowyn says:

      The ending has issues that are completely separate from the kid. The catalyst being a kid, as far as I can tell, is just a way to put Shepard ill at ease.

      The problem with the ending, in my opinion, is that it just suddenly gives you choices without a reasonable way of making a logical decision, at least at first. Even in the extended cut it’s completely, COMPLETELY based on information given to you from a single biased source.

      • Mike S. says:

        “The ending has issues that are completely separate from the kid. The catalyst being a kid, as far as I can tell, is just a way to put Shepard ill at ease.”

        Which reminds me of one thing I really liked from the Refuse ending: that it says its final “So be it” in Harbinger’s voice. Yes, this is the king of the Reapers you’re talking to.

        The end in general would be slightly improved with a single dialog option telling the Catalyst to cut the manipulative crap and at least wear a form reflecting what it really is. (Something which causes the worst genocides in human history to be lost on the far side of the decimal point.) Its choice whether that looks more like Sovereign or Galactus as drawn by Jack Kirby, but defenseless child is right out.

    • Jeff says:

      When I first met the kid I thought “Bah, you moron, you think you’re John McClane Jr.?”

      When he blew up I thought “HAH, serves that punk-ass kid right! That’s what you get for not listening to me/Shepard!”

      The first dream sequence was thus like “WTF why am I dreaming about that moron? Where’s Tali?”

      I give absolutely zero concessions to anyone due to age, and I remember at the age of 13 thinking those Young Offender laws to be bovine excrement because they should face the full consequences for their actions, so take that as you will.

      • swenson says:

        I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the Catalyst should’ve been the squad member who died on Virmire, not that kid (at least for imported games). I can tell you right now I would’ve been a whole lot more emotionally invested–and probably a whole lot more willing to ignore plot holes–if it’d been Ashley/Kaidan standing there, reminding me that I killed her/him.

        • anaphysik says:

          I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the Catalyst should’ve been the first casualty of this whole series, whose death ought linger on Shepard’s conscience the longest: Jenkins

          • Zekiel says:

            Just saying – while Kaiden/Ashley would have been WAY more emotionally engaging, Jenkins would have been hilarious. Also, completely confusing for most people – about 5 minutes after his death in ME1 I couldn’t remember him, so the chances of most people remembering him after 3 games is pretty remote. Actually, thinking about it, that’s probably WHY it would be so hilarious.

  9. Abnaxis says:

    Did these stories fail because their plots stopped making sense? Or was the nonsense plot a side-effect of the thematic and character mishaps?

    I don’t think it’s a causal relationship at all. I think something that is being overlooked in these discussions is that while some leaps always have to be made for good drama, some stories have more illogical leaps than others. “Plot holes” and “emotional investment” both have a continuous gradient to them.

    I prefer to think of the issue more in terms of balance. You can have holes in your plots, but only so far as they are counterbalanced by the emotion you are invoking when those holes become apparent. To take the Tyrannosaurus example FCH used–people generally don’t think about how the T-Rex climbed up a fifty foot drop because IT’S EATING THE CHARACTERS AHHH, but if it had been set-up as a “T-Rex doesn’t attack but you see it creeping out as the car drives away” it would have been jarring.

    The amount of tomfoolery people are willing to tolerate is directly proportional to how emotionally invested they are when it occurs. It’s not an issue of “this causes that” or “that causes this,” but rather a combination in the execution of both. No matter how emotional a moment is it can be messed up by blatant holes, it just needs more holes to be ruined.

    • PhotoRob says:

      I’m pretty sure FCH got that scene wrong – there shouldn’t have been a cliff at all.

      When the cars stopped the first time, the goat was raised up on a platform to lure the T-Rex out. The goat was in easy view of the cars; nobody was looking down a cliff at it. On the return trip, when the kid asked “Where’s the goat?”, everybody else looked out at the easily seen (even in the dark) platform, which (again) was not down a cliff.

      The question we should be asking is, “Where did the cliff come from?”

      Of course, we don’t really notice because it’s such an intense, heart pounding, adrenaline pumping scene

  10. guy says:

    I don’t think a story has to fail in other ways to get people to notice plot holes. For my examples, I will use two works I liked: The Avengers and Starcraft II.

    In The Avengers, there was a awesome dramatic scene when Black Widow was taking Loki’s truly impressive lecture that I was thoroughly enjoying, and then something that didn’t quite make sense happened. Black Widow abruptly recovered and thanked him for giving her the information. I get that she was letting him talk until he gave away the plan, I just didn’t see where he’d really given anything new away. This bugged me for the entire movie and even afterwards. I eventually kind of figured it out, but the answer wasn’t quite satisfactory. So he said, “There’s a little monster inside all of us”, which was clearly referring to the Hulk, but he’d been mercilessly taunting every member of the team at various points. How come she decided that one was related to his plan? I liked the movie a lot, but throughout later scenes I kept thinking, “Okay, this is really cool and also hilarious, but will anyone explain what happened back there?” It didn’t kill the story, but it definitely hurt it.

    Likewise, in Starcraft II they establish that a certain place is incredibly hostile to human life in dialogue, and frankly it just looks like bad news for anything that enjoys air, but then people walk around with their helmets raised, when doing that in actual space would have been safer. Also, there was another instance of one line not making sense, and an issue of tactics not making sense. During the intro to Hell’s Gate, Raynor complains that Warfield shouldn’t have tried a frontal assault. Uh, what? What else could he possibly do? Also, Warfield is taken by surprise when Kerrigan sends swarms of mutalisks to engage him in deep space, which probably surprised him because sending defense forces outside the range of the planetary spore cannons to engage an attacking fleet was kind of idiotic. Again, not fatal to the story, which I actually quite liked, but annoying.

    None of those were things I noticed in retrospect, the moment they happened it felt like my connection to the story had just tried to shift to a gear it didn’t have. They didn’t entirely ruin it, because I did care about the characters and the story, but they definitely damaged it.

    So, basically, if something is failing on the other two levels, losing logical coherency is the last straw. Once that’s gone, there’s nothing to keep the story going and the only reason to keep going through it is hope it will improve or to snark endlessly. But if the other two levels are doing okay, a logical flaw will not total the story. That does not mean they won’t be disruptive to enjoyment.

    There’s another thing, too: Among people who enjoy a genre, some logical flaws in the genre get a free pass. Of course, if viewers couldn’t give them a pass they probably wouldn’t be fans of the genre. The most obvious is that sci-fi settings get a pass on following the laws of physics. But it’s not just that. Sam and Max gets a pass on logical sense because it’s a comedy and things in comedy don’t have to make sense. Anime gets a pass on wildly implausible resistance to injury because that’s how it works. Warhammer 40K gets a pass on people not doing things in a rational and efficient manner because, well, it wouldn’t be Warhammer 40K if people did what made sense.

    What really got the huge firestorm going about the Mass Effect 3 ending was that it failed on every possible level.

    It failed logically: Why can’t I just kill the Reapers instead of all synthetics? Why is the Catalyst letting me choose? Why did the Catalyst resolve synthetics killing organics by making synthetics to kill organics? Why is Commander Shepard listening to the Catalyst? Why believe him?

    It failed thematically: Everything to that point had been about breaking away from cycles, ending pointless wars, changing things. But suddenly the Organic/Synthetic conflict, the one we potentially solved on Rannoch, can’t be resolved?

    And finally, we didn’t care about the Catalyst and the fate of the characters we did care about was unresolved.

    You’d have to really rewrite the whole thing to fix the second two without also fixing the first, but if you did, the logical failings would still annoy people. It wouldn’t be outraging, but it wouldn’t be completely ignored.

    Obviously, everyone has a different tolerance for logical failings, but I suggest that a sufficiently large flaw will hurt anyone’s enjoyment.

    • silver Harloe says:

      “So he said, ‘There’s a little monster inside all of us’. [so what?]” Except what was actually said was: Widow: “you’re a monster.” Loki: “No, YOU brought The Monster.” That’s why she concludes he has some plan to activate Hulk – his use of the specific article “the” and saying “you brought him”.

      • Mike Riddle says:

        I always interpreted that scene that she was acting, to pump information, like in her opening scene, and some inflection on “Monster” gave Loki’s plan away. I said when I watched it “not someone to play poker against

    • Aldowyn says:

      Basically the biggest problems with the ME3 ending are not because of the Crucible, they’re because of the Catalyst.

      I am of the opinion if they’d established the choices as something discovered in studying the plans for the Crucible earlier on in the game, it would have been so much better. The Catalyst just breaks everything in so many ways, not the least of which is how he’s related to the Reapers.

  11. MattK says:

    So your story/movie/game is software, and everyone’s brain is hardware, and every brain is different. Plot holes are blue screens. Then the goal of good storytelling is to write software that crashes on as few of our different pieces of hardware as possible. Sounds crazy difficult.

  12. Blackmore's Knight says:

    Speaking on Deus Ex: HR, the game actually lost me and any connection that I might have had to it when I realized that nothing I did was going to have any real in game ramifications. I don’t mean doing things that are expected to progress the story, I mean gunning down police, civilians, and so forth. No one called me out on this. No one even seemed to notice. And at that point the immersion of the world was broken to me and I couldn’t really take the story all that seriously anymore. If a game developer is going to let someone essentially be a mass murdering sociopath, there needs to be story-based reasoning, or at least reactions, for those actions. If not, you fall into the trap Tolkien outlined where you’re jerked out into the real world again and realize, ‘Oh, it’s just a game after all, this world doesn’t make sense’.

    • Jeff says:

      If you wipe out the police station, you make the news.

      Everybody else is preoccupied with other things though, there isn’t really much of a chance for police to hunt down some serial killer, especially one flying all over the world.

  13. Vect says:

    I do believe that Internal Consistency is important. As in, mostly stuff that makes sense within the setting. Like, while a magic pink elephant would be appropriate in something like My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, I doubt the same could be said of Taken.

  14. RTBones says:

    What you are talking about is ‘suspension of disbelief.’ We all know movies and games are not ‘real’. The feeling of immersion, or getting sucked into a game or film or a book, requires us to temporarily bypass our normal ‘reality check’. We suspend our disbelief of the actions in the story as we get sucked in. When that suspension of disbelief gets disrupted, our immersion is broken.

    The movie Source Code is a great example. The movie is about an Army helicopter pilot who is last aware of being on a mission in Afghanistan. He wakes up on a commuter train traveling to Chicago, confused. He finds that to the world around him, to include his traveling companion and the bathroom mirror, he appears to be a school teacher. As he wrestles with this, the train car explodes, which kills everyone aboard. The pilot regains consciousness in an unfamiliar cockpit of sorts. Through a screen, an Air Force officer verifies his identity as a pilot. She explains he is in “Source Code”, an experimental device. Source Code allows users to experience the last eight minutes of another compatible person’s life within an alternate timeline. His mission is to use Source Code to discover the location of a bomb aboard the train and identify the bomber who detonated it. Basically, he’s both himself and the teacher, the compatible alternate.

    The movie is set on a real commuter rail route into the real city of Chicago. Having been to Chicago many times, I know that the commuter rail service there is called Metra. The movie doesnt call it that, but doesnt dwell on the fact either. This, I was able to let go, largely because it isnt pertinent to the story.

    What broke my own immersion, however, was a scene towards the end of the movie where the aforementioned Air Force officer calls in the license plate number of the bad guy’s van to the authorities. She distinctly says that the van has Illinois plates – yet the van clearly has California plates as seen in a scene just preceding this. This disrupted my suspension of disbelief and brought my brain back from the story into reality – where it no longer made sense. While the name of the transit system is not critical to the story, the license plate is very much so.

    • postinternetsyndrome says:

      More spoilers ahead, obviously.

      This might be something of an epileptic tree, but consider that the end of the film breaks to us this truth: Alternate realities exist. All the different iterations of the train crash during the film takes place in a different alternate reality. It is something of a standard thing in movies dealing with alternate realities to have small tells that something is off, like the colour of an item, a person having glasses or not and that sort of thing.

      Now, I don’t know how you see on american plates that they are from that state or this – maybe it says explicitly on them or it’s just a difference in format – but it’s easy to imagine them being something like this. Or not. Seems like a silly thing to get upset about though, since it’s more of an error than an actual plot hole – it’s not really important WHERE the plates are from, just that the characters in the film know it.

      • Rtbones says:

        My point was that it completely breaks immersion – like Shamus’s example of the military person not being able to accept an inaccurate portrayal of a military function. Doesnt affect the story, but ruins the immersion for that person. In the US, every state has a different license plate. Yes, it may be a simple error – but the main antagonist is caught because of it. By using the wrong state, they completely blow the identification of the vehicle. It destroyed my immersion in the story.

        Also, it was in the reality they were trying to save, i.e. the one the pilot was essentially dead in, not an alternate one. Further, the plates were never shown as Illinois, they were always California. Again, not a plothole, but an immersion breaker.

    • Bryan says:

      One of Tolkien’s points in On Fairy Stories was that suspension of disbelief isn’t actually necessary in the audience when the story is working. If you have to work to suspend disbelief, then the art has already failed for you. If the world works for you without any difficulty, then the art is working.

      This is a somewhat different definition of “suspension of disbelief” than what most people use, but I think it’s better. :-)

  15. postinternetsyndrome says:

    I guess someone should mention Dear Esther, which is explicitly designed not to make sense, and in a different way every time! To be honest, I didn’t realize that the parts of the story didn’t fit together when I played it, because I trusted the storyteller. And later, when I read about the whole randomization of story thing, I didn’t feel betrayed or de-immersed, because the game for me was more of an emotional experience anyway; it was a series of moments that felt really good, and also might be a metaphor that shouldn’t be taken literally so no reason to flip out over it.

  16. StashAugustine says:

    So, if plot holes are like bugs, does that make Bioware the Obsidian of storytelling?

  17. This is at most only a tendency, but your examples do give me a sense that there is a feedback between plots that make sense and character development and interactions that make sense and draw us in. The clearest example: In Fable 2, you didn’t believe in the friendship between the protagonist and Theresa. Why? Because her actions(plot) didn’t make sense for someone who was supposed to be a friend(characterization). Here there is no distinction between plot failure and characterization failure–they stand or fall together. A friend is someone who does friend-like actions.
    It can work for drama, too. If you want a sense of urgency, say, you might create it by having there be something that the protagonist must succeed in doing, or else terrible consequences will result. So OK, which will create more sense of urgency–a situation in which the consequences are clear and which you can understand would follow from failing to take the action, or a situation in which the consequences are unclear or seem unrelated to the action? The latter is a plot failure, but it leads to a dramatic failure.
    People who notice and are bothered by the plot failure may really be reacting to the dramatic failure, but if the plot hadn’t failed there wouldn’t be a dramatic failure.
    This to me cuts directly against some of what Hulk seems to be saying, where he actually sets up an opposition between drama and plot logic. He doesn’t quite say flat out that there’s a zero sum game between the two, but he comes close; at one point he claims that drama is created largely by employing the ability to “cheat” that cinematic technique (e.g. cutting) gives you, and so too much attention to logical plot actually undermines drama. I really don’t buy that. And I don’t know where that leaves books in terms of capacity for drama or emotional immersion; presumably if Hulk is right they don’t have any . . .

    I’ll buy that character and drama, pacing and tension and such, are more important to immersion than logical consistency. And I’ll buy that people will tend to notice and be disturbed by plot holes in movies much more when some of those other things have failed. And I’ll even buy that many people may falsely imagine they didn’t like the movie because of the plot holes, when really they didn’t like the movie because of the dramatic failures which let them pull back from immersion enough to notice the plot holes.
    I’ll buy all that. But sorry, plot holes are still bad. And plot holes may create, reinforce, or actually represent dramatic failures. Far from a zero-sum game, fixing a logic failure may well improve drama or character.

  18. JPH says:

    “Blue Screen of AWESOME BUTTON!”

    Ohoho, was that a sneaky hidden reference to Jarenth’s website? I may or may not see what you did there, Shamus.

  19. The_Zoobler says:

    I personally feel like my disconnect from the Mass Effect series came right at the beginning of Mass Effect 2, when it felt, to me, that the game made a thematic shift from Space Opera to… I don’t even know what.

    I mentioned it a few posts back, but The Illusive Man, and that crime-ridden space station with the obnoxious Asari boss, Samara the space-cop and Liara’s suddenly-a-crime-boss character change: it felt like I was in a bad spy movie instead of a space opera.

    Sure, I personally am just not that thrilled with spy movies or Bourne movies or cop movies or any of the above, and I’m certainly not a fan of trying to pretend someone is intelligent or menacing just because he has a codename and a cigarette (illusive man), but I think it was a big tone change for anyone really. A complete change of direction from the first game. Suddenly you’re not some space-hero (Spectre), you’re an “agent” in an “evil organization”. It’s all “secretive” and “cool” and bleeugughrhghgh.

    Although, Spectres were government agents from the start. Maybe the point was that in Mass Effect 1, you’re a government agent, 2, you’re an anti-government agent and see things from the other side, and 3, you have to drop that conflict and save the Ear- I mean galaxy.

    It really didn’t work though. Absolutely nothing made Cerberus likeable or gave you a new perspective on things: it was just a bunch of people I didn’t want to work for telling me to do stupid things. And even though a Spectre is technically a government agent, I felt much more like a Jedi, a trusted guardian of the galaxy, and the second game took that feeling away from me.

    I think any hope I had for Mass Effect 3 fell apart at the emotional connection early on: instead of trying to save the Galaxy, Shepard is trying to save Earth, and every other person is a stepping stone to attain that goal. Its not the kind of Shepard I want to play, but its the kind of Shepard you are forced to portray. “Screw the extinction of your species, we lost a kid!” sums up the feeling I got from Mass Effect 3, and I cannot describe the contempt I have for the idea that Earth is more or less important than any other planet or civilization in the Galaxy. I personally would want to save everyone, not just “my own”.

    And really, logic holes can create emotional holes. It is a logic hole that you can’t, as Shepard, the Great Negotiator, do more to at least mitigate the losses of either the Geth or the Quarians, or at least negotiate a temporary cease-fire. It is a logic hole that every Quarian in existence is present for the fleet battle, to be wiped out. It is a logic hole that every single member of the un-chosen species is annihilated. Instead of tragic loss, you feel like the game just tied you to a chair and slapped you in the face. Emotional disconnect. Story collapse.

    • drkeiscool says:

      I thought the shift in tone was:
      ME1:Space Opera (Star Trek) ->ME2:Dark and Gritty (Blade Runner)

      I’m not sure about ME3 though.

      • Cupcaeks says:

        ME3: SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER (Transformers)

        That’s the vibe I got from it anyway. While ME2 was kind of the start of that shift, that game still explored interesting premises (Geth society and how it might not even be comprehensible to us given our mode of thought, for example). ME3 seemed to abandon all pretense of being science fiction, other than that it was set in space and that there were lasers. I liken it to those big, dumb action movies where there is no real substance to what is going on, but sets out to be a thrilling ride all the same.

  20. Isy says:

    The trouble I have with FCH’s argument is he’s taking arguments about movies and using them to defend a game. You’ll notice almost all his examples in his article come from movies. And that’s the problem with his Mass Effect 3 discussion, because a game isn’t a movie. The gameplay and story have to mesh or the game will fail. It’s another layer of potential immersion breaking potholes that are being ignored because a story is a story, right? Except there are a lot of games that failed because they were trying to be a movie and forgot to be a game.

    For example, I liked the plot to Grand Theft Auto 4 a lot. But here’s the caveat: I never played the game. The game failed because it was a serious, dramatic story in a game where the mechanics encouraged you to beat hookers with dildos and then punished you for doing it.

    Mass Effect 3 didn’t just fail on a dramatic sense, it failed at the ending because it betrayed its own mechanics at the end and forced you into a Renegade interrupt to continue. It fails because it’s trying to be a movie, where a lot of these failures could be glossed over. And I think it’s an axis of dramatic consideration that everyone is ignoring in their analysis.

    • krellen says:

      A point I often try to make is that Gameplay is Story. You cannot expect a game to work by interspersing unrelated gameplay segments with the Plot-By-Cutscene, which far too many games do. I feel like FCH played Mass Effect like a movie (maybe even did “story-mode”), more-or-less ignoring the gameplay entirely. And told that way, perhaps Mass Effect 3 does work.

      An interesting thing I noted was that FCH himself recognised that the biggest tell for who liked the game was whether they were a “gamer” or not – and maybe he should respect that gamers probably understand games better than film critics.

      • Isy says:

        It’s a difficult balance. One of the issues the Spoiler Warning crew brings up a lot is that there’s no point to the shooting bits beyond being annoying bits you have to grind through to get to the story bits that people actually care about. But at the same time there are plenty of games that I think are great that have exactly the same flaw. I liked Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6, but I’m not going to pretend the combat was anything other than a speedbump I had to run over every minute to get to the delicious chunks of story in the game.

      • ThomasWa says:

        He also called it the “Citizen Cane” of games. Short version: FCH cannot accept games as a medium of art unless they are movies.

        Screw that guy, seriously.

  21. Aldowyn says:

    See, I very, VERY rarely break my “suspension of disbelief”. I just don’t see plot holes the first time around, and even when I do see them I don’t particularly care about the details. I’d probably be somewhere between Bob and Dan. Like on Sur’kesh I’m like “wait why is Cerberus attacking?”, just for a moment, and then I go back to OMG FEMALE KROGAN THIS IS SO INTERESTING. I was absolutely amazed at Tuchanka and Rannoch, and thought Bioware did a really good job at the conclusion to those character and story arcs, and didn’t notice the plot holes you guys have been pointing out (I haven’t been watching, actually. Sorry. I’ll catch up eventually, although I may have a Mumbles-in-Bioshock like breakdown in the process). Kai Leng sucked though.

    I honestly have no idea how I would have seen the ending if I hadn’t heard all the controversy ahead of time. I KNOW I would have been annoyed at the “reveal” of the purpose of the Reapers, and that the kid was in control of them, but the choices? It’s an awkward way of doing it, but not inherently, incorrectably broken, in my opinion.

    • swenson says:

      I didn’t know about the controversy when I first played (I heard vaguely that some people didn’t like it, but I finished the game just a couple of days after it came out), and my overriding feeling, as far as I can recall, was just… discontent. You go through everything, you get to the end, and everything’s over, Shepard’s dying next to Anderson and…

      Hackett calls you up. And it’s like “LOL JK IT’S NOT ACTUALLY OVER HERE’S A RANDOM SPACE CHILD INSTEAD”. And the choices, I really didn’t feel like I understood them well enough. I ended up just picking Synthesis because it sounded like the “right” choice, even though what I really wanted to do was destroy the Reapers (but I didn’t want to risk the geth, and Control just sounded like a bad idea, especially seeing as the Illusive Man was for it). And then before the extended cut ending, I felt like the game just sort of… ended.

      So exhaustion of “you mean it’s not over YET?!” followed by being dissatisfied with my choices followed by a complete lack of closure. The last, I’m pleased to say, the extended cut did help with an awful lot, because it, you know, actually shows you what happens next, as opposed to smash cutting to sometime in the future, so I guess we won?

  22. mdqp says:

    I don’t like the point that Hulk makes, because it’s like telling that I can’t enjoy something intellectually, but only emotionally. Being engaged doesn’t mean pouring all your feelings into a work of art, it CAN be that, but it isn’t necessarily that. I might like the lyrics of a song, not only because it touches my feelings, but because I find the words used and the structure of said lyrics brilliant. If something engages you intellectually, and suddendly goes full retard, it’s going to ruin the experience. Since I am capable of being rational and emotional, both kind of mistakes can ruin my experience. If at least one part is good, then one might let some things slide on the other side.

    The theme of a story is also both logical and emotional, most of the times, for it to fail, it needs to be really lacking in one department, or being mediocre in both (that’s why botching the theme can be jarring, it’s not because of some superior emotional ground it stands on).

    • Cupcaeks says:

      Wow, I think this is exactly what I found so irritating about Hulk’s article, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. He seems to be implying that the only reason we watch movies is to be emotionally engaged, and further seems to imply that being intellectually engaging will somehow diminish a work’s attempt to engage on an emotional level, and I just don’t see how that could be true.

      Kudos

    • swenson says:

      Isn’t being engaged in something intellectually just a form of emotional engagement? If you enjoy something in analysis, you listen to/watch/play something and enjoy working out the underlying things or saying things like “I really like this particular aspect and the way it works with this other aspect”, that seems like a level of emotional engagement to me. It’s just not in the form of connection with characters or surface enjoyment or what-have-you.

      • mdqp says:

        But the point is, that a logic failure can be as jarring as an emotional one. Having feelings about what you like/dislike is inevitable, I am not arguing that. What I am arguing is that Hulk seems to believe that logic is, in the end, something you can sacrifice without problems, which simply isn’t the case. If you read a “hard” Sci-fi novel, in which you usually are presented with a “what if?” scenario (what if we created a real AI? What if we were able to travel faster than light?), the consequences shown to us must be logically believable and consistent, otherwise it’s pure make-believe, and uninteresting. You can’t simply say that the problem is that they botched the theme, because they could in fact remain consistent with it, but still fail on a logical level and doom the story to be a poor one.

        And this is just an example, to show one end of the spectrum, but in all fiction there is a logical component that you must preserve in order to write a good story (I am not debating the merits of an hypothetical logic/emotions ratio, just that it is always present, regardless of what Hulk seems to believe, and that it is much more important than what he/she aknowledges). For example, I am against any form of contrivance that isn’t used to start a story/conflict, but instead to resolve one (What I mean is: I am perfectly fine with a universe that has the mass effect as the center of its technology, even though I know it doesn’t exist in real life, as far as I know, but I am against pulling out of your ass a solution if you wrote yourself into a corner, like the crucible to deal with the Reapers… We are NOT going to talk about the catalyst), as it is the cheapest move a writer can pull, and a really transparent one (and if it has no real purpose at all, it should be avoided at all costs… To remain withi the ME series, it’s like Shepard dead and resurrection, which could have been dealed with in hundreds or maybe thousands of ways that didn’t involve such a logic-breaking situation… And yes, it’s the logic the main problem there, even before the thematic WTF it creates).

  23. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

    This is ultimately the reason I am a communicativist rather than a formalist (that is, I think art should be judged on its ability to communicate its meaning, rather than on its material and physical properties).

    What we’re hearing is that, on some level, art simply has to “work.” If all the parts are there, but they don’t mesh and run properly, the art will burn out and the audience will stop suspending disbelief. All the parts have to be there, just like in the coding example, but having all the parts is no guarantee against the whole still not working. They have to relate properly.

    This is why we have tropes (in the TVTropes sense), which are tried and true ways of relating things which “work.” But even tropes can fall flat.

    I guess that’s why it’s an art and not a science.

  24. LunaticFringe says:

    ‘Story Collapse’ plot holes seems to be David Cage’s MO. His later work, Heavy Rain, shares the same issue as Indigo Prophecy (spoilers for Heavy Rain obviously). Throughout the game, we often have access to characters’ thoughts on whatever situation they’re in. Scott Shelby, for example, is a private eye trying to hunt down the Origami Killer and often thinks to himself constantly about where the clues lead and how he’s going to catch him. This is a well established part of the game mechanics, and thus any author credibility is completely destroyed when it’s revealed that Shelby is the killer. The player trusted the writer and the information given in the initial mechanic with no foreshadowing whatsoever, so rather then feeling like a logical plot twist it comes off like a very hackneyed attempt to trick the player.

    By the way, according to Warren Spector Cage is a genius and one of the best writers in the industry (seriously, what happened to Spector, it seems like he completely lost it sometime in the mid-2000s). Cage is not a bad writer by any means, but because he often shifts the plot in a way that fundamentally ruins already established emotional buildup he always falls short. I honestly can’t wait to see how he messes up Beyond: Two Souls with his stupid twists.

    • LintMan says:

      Wow, did Heavy Rain really show a characters thoughts and then later you find out that was a total fraud (by the game itself to the human player, not the NPC character to the PC)? Man, that’s total BS.

      There’s an Agatha Christie mystery novel (spoiler alert!), where we see the thoughts of a few of the characters including, as it turns out, the killer. But Ms. Christie plays fair: the thoughts that we see are ones that the characters would naturally have been thinking at those moments, regardless if they were the criminal or not; it is only our own assumption that a POV character must not be guilty that misleads us.

      • LunaticFringe says:

        You play four different characters so the reveal occurs when another character, an FBI agent, figures out all the pieces. Funny enough, another playable character trying to find the killer already knows, but during her chapter someone WHISPERS the killer’s name into her ear, and we don’t hear it to maintain suspense.

        Listening to the character’s thoughts was an actual game mechanic, as you were walking to locations you could hit a button and the character would start narrating to himself/herself. Probably the most BS part of the game is one scene where Shelby’s at an antiques store talking to an old friend who can help him find evidence on who the Origami Killer is. As he heads into the back, the camera pans away to another character and then comes back to Shelby. After a minute or two you can then go into the back and find the old friend dead. And suddenly the police are coming. When it’s revealed that Shelby is the killer later on it flashes back to this moment and shows that during that brief pan away Shelby went into the back, killed his old friend, AND CALLED THE COPS ON HIMSELF. Honestly, as Shamus said, Indigo Prophecy’s story was basically a peyote dream, but this was just blatantly dishonest storytelling.

        Bear in mind, the idea of a serial killer pretending to be a P.I. so he could collect all the evidence and destroy it is actually really cool. That’s the problem with David Cage, he usually starts with an interesting idea and completely fails at the execution.

      • swenson says:

        The Christie novel in question is a great example. The narrator himself says at the end that he never cheated–he told only the truth. He just didn’t draw attention to certain aspects.

        However, when it came out, lots of people cried foul! I think it’s great, though. A wonderful subversion of expectations, but for it to work, the narrator had to be absolutely reliable up to that point (in my opinion).

  25. Eric says:

    “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?”

    I think plot holes lead to story collapse because storytelling, as you said, is all about trust in the author, universe and characters. Plot holes, inconsistencies, illogical actions and events, all of those destroy trust and often lead to failure.

    Furthermore, whether you notice plot holes or not, they still exist. On some objective level, a story is bad if it has lots of plot holes, no mater if is thematically great or has entertaining characters. This is, again, why I think the whole “plot holes don’t matter unless they get in the way of the story being told” definition just does not work. It’s like saying that a building whose support apparatus is made out of aluminum foil is “plenty stable” so long as you don’t pay attention to the wobbling beneath your feet.

  26. ENC says:

    I’ve found grammatical errors in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, to the point of 2 what’s in a row. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether the language structure is obtuse or indeed whether it is a mistake.

    I’ve also found mistakes in Surface Detail and The Void Trilogy, but I haven’t put a sticky note on them unfortunately but marked the page with pencil drawings all over the place lamenting the author’s lack of a spellcheck.

    • anaphysik says:

      What’s what’s a moderately common phrase. :P :P :P

    • LunaticFringe says:

      If you want a grammatical nightmare try the English translation of Metro 2033. There’s a ton of repeated words and a lot of weird sentence structures. The book’s actually quite good however, but sometimes it’s the Russian equivalent of Engrish.

  27. LintMan says:

    Film Crit Hulk’s point is basically that as long as
    EC (emotional connection) > NF (narrative flaws), then people will forgive the NF and the NF don’t matter. I agree with the first part of that (about willingness to forgive/overlook the flaws), but disagree about it not mattering. FCH is basically using this to justify dismissing the complaints about the flaws in ME3: “It works for me emotionally, so its flaws don’t matter – so quit complaining about them.”

    Aside from the whole “it worked for me so ME3 critics == clueless whiners” of FCH’s original piece, it’s really the “narrative flaws don’t matter if you’re emotionally connected enough” that gets me: 1) both sides of that equation above are subjective and 2) forgiving or overlooking a flaw is not the same thing as forgetting it – they can still mar someone’s enjoyment even if it doesn’t ruin it. A Ferrari that stalls every time you exceed 50mph will get you to your destination, but it’d be a hell of a lot nicer if it ran correctly.

    Getting back to ME3, I don’t think that it failed on delivering sufficient emotional connection anywhere near as much as it introduced such a sheer mountain of narrative flaws at the end, that for most people the gap was insurmountable.

    To use a sports metaphor, let’s consider a film as a sports team. The amount of emotional connection it makes is the team’s score (ie: determined by the team’s offense). The amount of narrative flaws it allows is the opposing team’s score (ie: determined by failures of the team’s defense). For the team to win, it must outscore its opponent (ie: EC > NF).

    While you can boil any game loss down to “they didn’t score enough points”, that is a rather simple-minded approach. You get a far better understanding of what went wrong if you look at the overall score for both sides. Let’s say a typical game, say DXHR, is won with a score like 7-3. Now imagine that ME3’s score for many people (such as myself) is 11-29. Can you really say that is a failure to connect emotionally? Wouldn’t it be more apt to just say that the narrative flaws just utterly swamped any possibility of “winning”?

  28. Daimbert says:

    Well, I’ll just reiterate what I said in the other post: It’s all about narrative flow. Breaking the narrative flow breaks immersion, but any and all of the things you cite only break the narrative flow if … the person notices. So, someone who’s really good at grammar will notice those grammar errors and it will break the narrative flow for them, while others won’t notice. Those who know a lot about the military will notice the mistake and it will break the narrative flow for them, while others won’t. Some people won’t even notice those plot holes, while some notice them immediately.

    A funny example of this is actually in “The Witch Watch”. There’s a section where it talks about — from the narrator’s point of view — “Grayhouse”, and it comments that people always think that it refers to the colour and that the colour is spelled wrong, when it really refers to a name. Problem? As a Canadian who uses the British spelling, I know that in England the colour IS spelled “gray” as opposed to “grey”, and since it isn’t a character saying this it reminds me of author error and, therefore, that there’s an author. This is always bad. (As an aside, my biggest problem with the book, detailed in a review on my site, is that it breaks the narrative flow too much).

    Now, the more emotionally involved you are in the story, the less likely you are to notice these things, especially if they aren’t strongly telegraphed. The “gray” case above is prominent enough to be noticed, so I’d have to be really involved to miss it with the knowledge I have … but it’s also only a minor, throwaway point that I can chuckle at and quickly move on from. So, in theory, is the salute thing if it isn’t constantly mentioned, or the grammar errors. Because it drags you out of the narrative flow, you should enjoy the work less and less the more of these instances you have, because the best works are those that you sit down with and then a few hours later it’s over and you realize that a number of hours have passed that you didn’t plan on passing. The more breaks you get in it, the less classic the work will seem.

    I think that video games have the additional problem in that usually they break their own narrative flow by introducing gameplay. Even if you tie it tightly into the work, you still end up reminding people that this is a game by … having them play a game as part of it. So you need to integrate the gameplay into the story in some way that you basically take the gameplay for granted and just go on immersed in the game. MMOs tend to do this really, really well …

    • anaphysik says:

      You must be a weird Canadian then, since you’ve got it backwards:

      http://grammarist.com/spelling/gray-grey/

      Both were in free variation, but from the early 19th century, ‘gray’ has become increasingly preferred in the US and ‘grey’ has become increasingly preferred in the Empire/Commonwealth.

      Note: I haven’t read Shamus’ book (I have it, and I started to read it, but found it kind of meh… Sorry Shamus! :.[ I still love your blog posts!), so I don’t know whether it’s ‘Grayhouse’ or ‘Greyhouse’ or precisely when it’s trying to evoke (my guess is ~1850s Britain + magic?).

      As a sort of 1.5st-th generation British American (born there, raised here, citizenships of both), naturally I just use both in free variation.

      • Daimbert says:

        Huh. I was sure we used the “gray” variation … but that might have just been something bleeding in from the American side (we tend to get both).

        That being said, I still get the “colour” spelling right, so that’s something [grin].

  29. Arjen says:

    “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.”
    Kind of expected a link to your Project Frontier post about stitching there. Bugs come up when you stitch pieces of data together that weren’t made with each other in mind; I think the metaphor fits better than you’d expect.

  30. Adam says:

    It may or may not be worth noting (and I have skimmed to see if anyone else has, but perhaps I missed it) that if an incorrect salute or the wrong license plate is described by someone as a “plot hole”, that person is simply mistaken (unless that happens to be an important plot point). It’s a misapplication of the term. It pretty much has to be, or the term’s meaningless.

    • Jeff says:

      Yeah, those aren’t plot holes.

      Those are “continuity errors” or “goofs”, and there’s dedicated sections of those on the IMDB. Unintended minor errors, generally. (Like O’Brian or Tuvok wearing the wrong insignia in the early TNG/Voy episodes, respectively. They aren’t supposed to be plot-relevant.)

  31. Jay says:

    I think Fable 2’s story problems stemmed from the gameplay.

    The game had a morality meter, with some PCs developing halos and other PCs developing demon’s horns for their good or evil behavior. The game, in theory, could be played as a pure warrior, a pure rogue, or a pure mage (although the leveling mechanics were set up so that most everyone was a fairly even mix). Theresa was written so that she would make at least some sense whether the PC was Robin Hood or Sauron.

    Traditional JRPGs do a better job in portraying character relationships, but the price is less character customization.

  32. RCN says:

    In my opinion, the theme isn’t as important as the characters, or the story itself. I happen to like quite a lot some films and books that you read thinking it is something for about half of it, and then turn out to be something completely different (not just some hack “twist” in the plot, I mean something like entire genres changing or literary styles).

    So breaking the theme doesn’t bother me, as long as it serves the story.

    Still, the works I like the most are the ones that either doesn’t break under scrutiny, or breaks under scrutiny on purpose.

    There was a great writer in my country in the turn of the XIX th to the XX th century whose most admired and studied work is one that flatly tells you one story. But this story is full of holes and continuity errors. Two things this writer is NOT known for.

    But his narrators are. And in this case it is the narrator who is truly untrustworthy and the true story can only be glimpsed through your mistrust of the narrator.

    I wish I can one day emulate something like that…

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