Domino Worldbuilding and the Brilliance of Mass Effect

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Jan 14, 2020

Filed under: Column 156 comments

If you’ve spent any time reading my work or watching my videos, then you know I tend to be kind of negative. So I want to change things up this week by talking about something I love. The problem is that I don’t really have a good word for this thing. So I’m going to do what all pretentious and self-important critics do, and make up my own term. And then I’ll explain what it means, why I love it, and why I think the first Mass Effect game is one of the most interesting fictional worlds I’ve ever visited.

To explain what makes Mass Effect so interesting to me, let’s talk about how other game worlds are developed. Different writers have different approaches to creating their fictional worlds, but the overwhelming majority of them are built in a needs-first kind of way.

Link (YouTube)

The writer thinks to themselves, “I need the hero to go on a quest for a magic sword to defeat the bad guy who lives in a hellish wasteland.” They start with that premise as the base and they only add details when they need to.

Then a self-important critic like me will come along and start asking annoying questions like:

  • Why do the bad guys want to take over the world?
  • How do they obtain supplies in a lifeless wasteland?
  • Why are the heroes the only people doing something about them?
  • Where did the sword come from?

“Don’t worry about it”, the author tells you. “The bad guy is just evil. He doesn’t need supplies because he has magic. The good guys have to do the fighting because of destiny or something. The sword was made by the gods or whatever. Stop over-thinking it. We’re here for an adventure, not to learn a bunch of made-up history and geography.”

And that’s fine. It’s totally reasonable to make a world that focuses on characters and leaves all the background details vague. In fact, if you’re making something like a movie or a TV show then you’re probably dealing with some severe time constraints. You can’t burn ten whole minutes of screen time explaining the history of the world to the audience. I mean, sometimes you can get away with it, but it definitely goes against modern movie making sensibilities. You usually need to introduce the characters and cut to the action as quickly as possible.

In The Fifth Element, we don’t need to worry about what makes Fhloston Paradise such a unique planet. We don’t need to know about its economics, or leadership. The screenwriter doesn’t tell us how the planet was settled or who lives there. The filmmaker shows us some really obvious Polynesiann imagery when we arrive and the audience immediately gets the idea, “Oh okay. This planet is space-Hawaii. I get it.”

This is a perfectly valid way to tell stories, but for me it’s not the most interesting way to build a world.

A World of Consequences

If your story has a flashback, that scene would be connected by, 'Hang on, I forgot to mention...'
If your story has a flashback, that scene would be connected by, 'Hang on, I forgot to mention...'

On YouTube you can find a talk from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone where they explain how they construct their stories. The first advice they give is to avoid writing stories where scenes or plot points would be connected by the words “and then”. Instead, your story beats should be connected by the words “and therefore”. That makes each scene a consequence of the previous scene. The other option is to have the points connected by the word “however”, which takes the audience through an unexpected turn.

Parker and Stone were talking about how to construct a story, but their advice could just as easily be applied to coming up with a setting and building worlds. That’s what backstory is. It’s the story that took place before your story.

And with that, I want to tell you about the backstory of…

Mass Effect

I really loved Kirahee before he was Flanderized into the line-holding guy.
I really loved Kirahee before he was Flanderized into the line-holding guy.

There’s this race of tadpole looking dudes called the Salarians. They’re really smart but they don’t live very long, which means they’re really good at coming up with brilliant short term solutions to serious problems.

There are these huge machines called mass effect relays. At this point in the story, nobody knows who built them or how they work. Their origins are part of the ongoing mystery of the setting. These relays allow instant travel all around the galaxy. The thing is, relays are initially deactivated. You can turn it on to connect your current location to a new, unknown star system somewhere else in the galaxy, but there’s no way to turn it off again. It’s like opening a door you’ll never be able to close. The Salarians are inventive and naturally curious, so they fly around the galaxy opening up relays to see what’s on the other side.

Therefore, they stumble on the home planet of beings called the Rachni. The Rachni are space bugs that communicate through some form of telepathy, so there’s no way for the Rachni and Salarians to talk to each other. It’s not even clear that the Rachni understand or care that Salarians represent an intelligent species. Therefore the Rachni pour through the now-open relay and begin spreading through the rest of the galaxy, wiping out anyone they find.

The galaxy fights back, but the Rachni are like space cockroaches. It’s really hard to kill them, and even if you do there’s always more.

However, there’s another race that the Salarians have discovered in their exploring. These guys are called the Krogan. Their homeworld is a hellhole filled with building-sized apex predators. The Krogan have thus evolved to be really tough and aggressive. Their females lay 1,000 eggs in a single clutch, they grow up quickly, they have super tough skin, they’re really strong, and they’re not afraid of anything. They have some industrial technology, but they’re not a spacefaring species. Their technology development has stagnated due to their constant infighting.

An invasive species of near-invincible space-turtles will fix everything!
An invasive species of near-invincible space-turtles will fix everything!

Therefore, the Salarians give the Krogans some spaceships and zap guns in exchange for help with the Rachni. The Krogan love this job, since this is a chance to enjoy war on a grander scale than ever before. [Therefore] They wipe out the Rachni, and [therefore] as a reward for saving the galaxy, the Council races grant them some planets to colonize.

[therefore] After the war ends, the Council makes a new rule: Nobody is allowed to open new mass effect relays, just in case there’s another Rachni-like species hiding behind one of these doors.

So we have peace, right? It seems like we ought to have peace at this point, however… the Krogan are prolific breeders. Outside of the horrific conditions of their homeworld, there’s nothing keeping their numbers in check. Therefore their population explodes. Pretty soon they run out of space to live. They’re overcrowded and they’re pretty much born with itchy trigger fingers, so war is inevitable. [therefore] They attack the other races to claim more space.

Once again, the Salarians solve today’s problems by creating tomorrow’s problems. They come up with the Genophage – a disease that will infect the Krogan and inhibit their ability to breed. They want to use it as a deterrent. They figure maybe they can threaten the Krogan into backing down.

No caption required.
No caption required.

However, one of the other Council races isn’t nearly so shy about using biological weapons on a planetary scale. The Turians are militaristic and disciplined. They also have a strong bureaucratic streak. They’re less interested in haggling for peace and more interested in gaining the upper hand in a military sense.

So [therefore] the Turians use the weapon, Krogan birth rates fall, and the war sputters out as attrition finally takes its toll on the Krogan population.

Things are peaceful until Humanity shows up. Humans build their first spacefaring ships and begin exploring the mass relay network with no idea of who they’re going to encounter. They don’t know anything about the Council or the law prohibiting opening new relays. Therefore they’re not shy about opening the first relay they find. The Turians find the Humans in the middle of opening a new relay and decide to stop them. A battle ensues. Humans do really well considering their status as newcomers, but they’re totally outmatched by the superior technology, fleets, and experience of the Turians. Eventually the misunderstanding is cleared up and humanity joins the galactic community, but [therefore] the battle leaves a lot of hard feelings all around.

All of that – everything I just told you – is just the backstory to Mass Effect. That’s what happens before the start of the game. What I love about it is that this is a series of consequences. All of that stuff happened for a reason. Galactic history was shaped by both the technology used and the personalities of the races involved, and each event was a consequence of the things before it.

I call this style of worldbuilding…

Domino Worldbuilding

Next we get to fight about which games use this type of worldbuilding and which don't. WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE, HUH SHAMUS?
Next we get to fight about which games use this type of worldbuilding and which don't. WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE, HUH SHAMUS?

Looking back, you can see that a lot of it was sort of inevitable. The Salarians were bound to run into the Rachni eventually, and that would lead inevitably to war, which would lead to the prohibition against opening new relays, which led to the violent first contact between Humans and Turians.

People made mistakes, sure. But everyone involved made decisions that were understandable based on who they were and what they knew at the time. Nobody had to be cartoonishly evil or painfully stupid to make this story happen. Yes, the Krogan and Rachni were incredibly destructive, but their actions are still understandable from a species and character standpoint. And just to be clear, sometimes it’s fine to have cartoon evil bad guys and idiotic blunders in your story. It depends on the tone of the story you’re trying to tell. I just really appreciate it when the storyteller takes the high road and makes something more nuanced.

More importantly, this history isn’t just background flavor. This stuff is all directly related to the events of the game. Your crewmate Ashley is dealing with some family-name guilt for how her grandfather acted during the first contact war with the Turians. Your buddy Wrex is wise enough to see that his people are dying out due to the Genophage and he’s trying to come up with a way to change that. Kaiden was deeply affected by the prejudice and abuse that humanity suffered at the hands of the Turians. The start of the game deals with an attack on a Human colony, which is part of Humanity’s ongoing struggle to expand geographically and politically and carve out their own place in the galaxy. Everyone is a product of the environment they grew up in, and everyone’s thinking – good or bad – is shaped by the events of the past. You don’t need to sit through all that exposition and read all those codex entries if you don’t care, but those details are there if you want them and that additional understanding can make the world richer and more interesting.

Yes, those are the Protheans in the upper left. Yes, I know the Mass Effect 3 writer claimed otherwise. The two games disagree, and I'm siding with Mass Effect 1.
Yes, those are the Protheans in the upper left. Yes, I know the Mass Effect 3 writer claimed otherwise. The two games disagree, and I'm siding with Mass Effect 1.

And despite all this depth, I actually skipped over a ton of details. I left out the important histories of the Protheans and the Asari. I also skipped over the stories of the Volus, Elcor, Quarians, Hanar, and Geth. There’s so much here and it’s all really good, but I think you get the idea.

The setting of Mass Effect is a masterwork of worldbuilding. It’s inventive, incredibly ambitious, beautifully detailed, and filled with interesting moral conundrums that resist simplistic good / evil binary analysis and instead forces you to really think about the people involved. This gives the setting an incredible level of verisimilitude. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, and we don’t get nearly enough of this sort of thing in video games.

So why does this matter? What makes Domino Worldbuilding better than just leaving things vague? As it happens, I have a numbered list that will answer that question:

A Numbered List

5. Because I really like it.
5. Because I really like it.

First off…

1. Games can (and should) have more details than movies.

We often compare games to movies because both are visual mediums, but in terms of plot density and story length, games are actually a lot closer to books.

Even short linear shooters take somewhere in the ballpark of five hours to finish. This means the shortest AAA games are longer than even the longest Hollywood blockbusters. And those are just shooters! Your average RPG is probably something in the neighborhood of 40 hours long. That’s enough time to watch the extended editions of all three Lord of the Rings movies, back-to-back… three times in a row. And you’ll still have enough time left over for the double-feature of Avengers Infinity War and Avengers Endgame. Plus a random episode of Star Trek!

Since Games are so much longer than movies, the writer isn’t under such severe time pressure. Sure, they can do everything the brute-force way and turn the game into a movie with lots of cutscenes, but the author also has a lot of other tools to communicate setting details to the player. There are player-directed expositional dialogs, ambient NPC chatter, radio chatter exposition, and lore items like books, codex entries, and datapads.

The point is that there are lots of ways to passively communicate setting or plot details to the player and plenty of time to do it in.

2. It’s useful for avoiding plot holes.

The audience is going to spend more time thinking about and questioning your world. You know how some movies make sense at first, but then after the movie is over you’re getting something out of the fridge and you suddenly think, “Hang on, if Buzz Lightyear thinks he’s a real space ranger and not a toy, then why does he act like a toy when humans are around?” This phenomenon is called Fridge Logic because it doesn’t hurt the movie while you’re watching it. It doesn’t bother you until later.

The problem is that in games, players spend a lot more time with your story. You usually don’t plow through an entire game in one sitting. They’re going to take breaks to eat and sleep and maybe go to some sort of job. Which means there are a lot more chances for the player to reflect and discover a fault that would have gone unnoticed in a two-hour movie.

Making your setting a series of consequences will force you to think things out ahead of time, which makes it less likely that you’ll create confusion or immersion-breaking inconsistencies.

3. It makes things easier on future teams.

We live in a world where endless sequels are the norm. Maybe you’re fine with that or maybe that bothers you, but that’s how the entertainment business works these days. Any halfway successful game is going to have a sequel, whether it needs one or not.

More importantly, why hasn't anyone come up with a coherent meta-narrative in the 13 years since the original game?!
More importantly, why hasn't anyone come up with a coherent meta-narrative in the 13 years since the original game?!

Since sequels are inevitable, it would be really smart if the initial designer would create some sort of framework. Putting in the effort to establish a coherent setting makes the world more interesting now, and it also makes things easier when another writer takes over later. If you can establish a clear set of events, characters, rules, and get a firm grasp of the tone, then it can act as a guide for future writers so the setting doesn’t immediately fall apart into a meandering pile of retcons and plot holes with no coherent theme. It means the story can feel intentional instead of feeling like a disjointed mess because nothing was planned out and the team had to make things up as they wentOf course, the later writers aren’t obligated to respect your guide. I’m sure there are examples of games where later writers ruined a series by ignoring the intention of the original author, but I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head. I know there was a goofy space game a few years ago that had this problem, but I can’t remember what it was called..

4. Makes the setting more real.

The most important reason to use a domino approach to building your world is because it gives the setting a sense of verisimilitude. It feels more real.

In our world, Hitler didn’t rise to power because the story of planet Earth needed a bad guy. He rose to power because of the many interactions and consequences that preceded him. We’re used to living in a complex world, and having a similar level of complexity in our fictional worlds can make it easier for us to immerse ourselves in them.

So that’s what made the first Mass Effect game special. I don’t know why more games aren’t designed this way. Now that so many franchises are embracing the 40-hour open world collect-a-thon grindfest template, it would be really nice if we could spend some of that time discovering a rich world with a complex and well-thought-out history.

Barring that, it would be great if some of our gameworlds could be a little less lazy, boring, or aggressively stupid.

EDIT: In the video and the text above, I had “lazy” refer to Fallout 4 and “aggressively stupid” refer to Rage 2. This is 100% backwards. Rage 2 is a lazy world with little effort put into the setting. Fallout 4 is a big pile drooling nonsense that conflicts with itself, other Fallout games, and common sense.



[1] Of course, the later writers aren’t obligated to respect your guide. I’m sure there are examples of games where later writers ruined a series by ignoring the intention of the original author, but I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head. I know there was a goofy space game a few years ago that had this problem, but I can’t remember what it was called.

From The Archives:

156 thoughts on “Domino Worldbuilding and the Brilliance of Mass Effect

  1. ivan says:

    I was rereading your Mass Effect retrospective not too long ago. I got to the end of ME1, the part where you analysed all the work put into setting up the sequels, that was thrown out and wasted in 2 and 3, and I had to stop reading there. It just made me so sad. So much potential wasted.

    I wrote the above before watching, assuming it would end up being sorta about this, more fool me! :) But yeah, Mass Effect, brilliant at both ends. And in most of the middle bits. Pity. Ya made me sad again, Shamus.

    1. ShivanHunter says:

      This, above everything else, is what disappointed me about ME:Andromeda. They definitely seemed to be promising a return to ME1 after the disaster that was ME3. Then the game came out, and it turned out that what they thought we liked about ME1 was… exploring planets in the Mako. The worldbuilding nerds got two paragraphs’ worth of stock descriptions and told “OK that’s the setting, go shoot things”.

      And it’s been over a decade now since ME1 and still no one has scratched the itch. Outer Worlds had good writing and some very lovable characters, but it was was more satirical than a serious attempt at worldbuilding the way Mass Effect was.

      I really dunno whether to be hyped for Starfield. On the one hand, it’s not made by Bioware’s carcass, and I really, really want to get hyped for another Mass Effect. On the other hand, it’s being made by Bethesda. They (…sometimes) write Elder Scrolls well, but their Fallout writing is extremely spotty, and the FO76 fiasco rightly has everyone worried.

      1. Duoae says:

        I really enjoyed this video! Kudos to Shamus and Isaac! :)

        Maybe I am missing something but there’s no link to the youtube video in the blogpost?

        Anyway, I wanted to add onto ShivanHunter’s thought about Andromeda.

        I think it’s really telling that the writers just jumped ship and abandoned all the lore to make Andromeda but then completely lacked any sort of creativity when it came down to it. I think you could have made essentially the same game with the idea I’m about to posit below on where they could have gone whilst still retaining all the world-building of the first three games.

        – Have a single canonical ending to ME3 (it’s not like they didn’t like to ignore player choice anyway!)
        – Have the result of the war against the Reapers be that the factions begin to open relays in order to find new words to inhabit. Et voila! New worlds, new cultures – you could explore the effects of the reaper invasion on other spacefaring civilisations which maybe had an isolated Mass Effect relay network. (Maybe I’m misunderstanding how the relays worked here :) )

        I mean, didn’t humanity find their relay in a moon of Pluto (Charon)? Aren’t primary relays in pairs? If so, there could be other non-Citadel space closed relay networks managed by other uncontacted species….

        1. Shamus says:

          “Maybe I am missing something but there’s no link to the youtube video in the blogpost?”

          Whoops. Fixed.

        2. Taellosse says:

          Possibly my memory is fuzzy at this point, but I’m pretty sure the relay network doesn’t work that way. You could possibly have a relatively small multi-system civilization unconnected to the Citadel, but the overall network was designed in a hub-and-spoke format, and hub systems always have a relay that leads to the Citadel, which is basically the Ur-hub. Not all spoke systems lead directly to a hub, of course, but if they don’t they probably lead to one that does.

          So any given system with a relay is only ever a handful of jumps from the Citadel itself. Any species capable of reaching a relay and activating it will be able to traverse the distance to the Citadel – or a major regional hub – in short order, and stop being isolated (by design, of course. This was how the Reapers ensured that each iteration of galactic civilization developed along the lines they wanted, both technologically and geographically). The only way that doesn’t happen is if key relays are damaged, destroyed, or knocked too far out of alignment for their automated systems to correct for it.

          That said, a game, or even major side quest, set in a region of the galaxy whose hub system relay to the Citadel was taken out like this could’ve been quite interesting. It’s something that could happen, just not something common.

      2. Gethsemani says:

        Disco Elysium most certainly scratches that itch. That entire game is a masterclass in Domino World Building and gradual reveals to keep it coherent for the player. You start with the easy to grasp idea that large corporations and the unions are at each others throats and that you are in a city still carrying the scars of a failed revolution and before you know it you’re knee deep in lore about zones of entropy and the half-century old events of the revolution. On top of all that, the game finds ways to make all of it relevant, either to the main plot or to some really significant side quests.

        But then again, Disco Elysium is doubtlessly the best RPG of the 2010’s (and if you disagree I will fight you, as Ron Burgundy said).

        1. Trystan de Lyonesse says:

          I disagree about Disco Elysium being game with Domino World Building. I think it’s just coherent, and we don’t have this in a lot of videogames lately. Events in the DE lore happened one after another, but there’s logic between them, and these events are very believable, because writing relies heavily on real event from our history.
          Yes, in the end all events and lore intertwines, everything what happened is connected to each other event and has significance.
          I think, it’s more tree-like structure. You have a trunk – chain of events that lead you to beginning, roots – history and lore, that together formed this trunk, and branches – current events that you experience through the game, consequences of this “trunk”.
          At first it’s full of blank points, but slowly they are filled from both ends, and in the end you’ll discover the “main” chain of events.
          At the start you have your case as the mystery, but in the end all world became a mystery that you solved. I think Disco Elysium is unique and good because of this, while it’s not flawless and hardly even can be called a RPG.

          1. The Puzzler says:

            Well, that could also be characterised as one of those more elaborate branching domino chains where they split up and join together again.

      3. ivan says:

        Tbh I’m not hopeful about Bethesda. The last thing of worth the did was Skyrim, and even then very little of that rises above bland. My personal favourite is Neloth, from the Dragonborn DLC. Mostly cos he’s a completely unrepentant, selfish, self-absorbed arsehole. And he’s NOT your enemy.

        Also he’s really well voice acted. Other than that, Skyrim has some good mechanics for ragdolling people, making them fight each other while you giggle in a corner, and other fuckabout activities like that. But there’s almost nothing there in terms of good story or characters, compared to the total volume of stuff that there is.

        Also I hated Fallout 3, never bothered with 4, but loved New Vegas to death.

      4. camycamera says:

        Well Bethesda did finally shake up the team at BGS (who traditionally have always been roughly the same team) by expanding them a lot, having more “a” and “b” teams IIRC etc. Now, so far it hasn’t turned out great… they released Fallout 76 and some crappy mobile games. BUT, maybe with that team shakeup, a take on a new IP with a new engine, reevaluating the criticism they’ve received for their storytelling in the past… Hey who knows, maybe they will knock it out of the park?

        Yeah I know, fat chance. In any case, we’ll see with this E3 (they will undoubtedly be showing Starfield off) what they have, and hopefully people will be way more sceptical of their killer marketing team this time. Like, at the Fo4 E3 reveal people were cheering over the Dog being able to pick up items you look at for you, or Codsworth being able to say your name. Useless gimmicks made for marketing purposes. Prove me wrong Todd, prove me wrong…

        1. Sleeping Dragon says:

          I have to say I did have “oh, this is pretty cool” moment when Codsworth said my name, didn’t help the game in the long run but did improve the first impression.

          On the other hand if their next announcement does not contain phrases “single player”, “no microtransactions” and “mod support” without qualifiers…

    2. Platypus says:

      This piece is really good and encapsulates the best and most frustating thing about mass effect-its an incredibly rich, well written and detailed world with game design that does nothing to take advantage of it. Playingt through it in 2019 for the first time(and despite my grieveances i will probably give it another shot for an 100 percent run at some point)i remember spending alot of time listening to interesting conversations and learning about a carefully thought out world only to be asked to participate only to be allowed to say either generic good guy response or bad guy response with little opprurtunity to use what i had learned meaningfully. Really i think the industry bearer for making this sort of deep worldbuilding work whilst connecting it meaningfully to gameplay is New vegas as every single town has a reason for existing, a history with a plausible if often wacky chain of events, connections with other places and so much of the flavour dialogue is useful on a gameplay level both in making story decisions and in gameplay hints. Honestly a mix of that sorta game design with Mass effects sci fi worldbuilding would be the best thing since sliced bread buttered both sides, I guess the Outer Worlds is the closest we will get to that for now.

  2. Karma The Alligator says:

    No link to the video anywhere? Had to go on your channel and browse to find it.

    Anyway, I also happen to like that approach to worldbuilding, and it’s what made me like Horizon Zero Dawn so much, as we discover the events that led, and shaped, the current world.

    1. EwgB says:

      Yeas, Horizon is exactly what I thought about when reading this. It was the absolute highlight of 2018 for me (I know that it came out in 2017, but that’s not when I got it), and definitely one of my favorite games overall. What makes it even stronger than Mass Effect in my opinion is that the worldbuilding is not done through codex entries that explain everything like some space Wikipedia. Instead it is done more organically through scraps of information from the old world. You find a letter from a son to his mother, a memo from a manager to his secretary, an ad from a magazine, and they all form a picture of what led to the world you see. And what is an additional delight is that you as a player know or can imagine what all those things mean because you’re familiar with the technology and culture, but the protagonist Aloy and the other characters interpret it in a kind of cargo cultish manner.

      1. Abnaxis says:

        +1 for Horizon and how it does world-building. I just played it the year, so I won’t judge someone making it their 2018 GOTY pick.

        It’s a shame the game is a PS exclusive. I would have loved to be able to mod it.

      2. Karma The Alligator says:

        Hey, I got it in 2019, so don’t worry about being late.

        Personally I think the worldbuilding in HZD works so well because it’s the focus of the game. It’s the big mystery we have to unravel to solve our problem and we know nothing when we start, while in Mass Effect the only mystery is the disappearance of the Protheans (which turns out to be important), we know all the backstory of the current cycle.

      3. DeadlyDark says:

        Horizon is a weird one for me. Backstory of the world – done awesome and the easily the best part of the game. World itself (tribes, characters, villains) – not so much, and rather bland. I guess, that their priorities here were to set up things in a satisfying matter, starting with the explanation of why the world the way it is, and the next game will flesh out the story of tribes and such.

        1. EwgB says:

          I would disagree. I found most of the characters quite compelling and believable, especially by video game standards. Some were a little one note maybe, but the most had actual motivations for their actions and not just plot driven contrivances. But your mileage may vary.
          What I also loved is that the writers didn’t felt the need to cram a love story in it, and possibly even hung a big lampshade on it. When Olin flirts with Aloy in the beginning it just goes miles over her head, which makes sense given her upbringing with regards to the total lack of social interaction with her peers. But later when Avad pretty much spells it out, she just goes “Nope, ain’t nobody got time for that, I’ve got a world to save!”.

          1. Syal says:

            In a vacuum each character is fine. The problem comes from Aloy antagonizing everyone and there only being two responses: either “I respect you”, or “I hate your class/race/gender and therefore hate you”. Your game gets one bigot unless you’re building the whole story around bigotry. HoZeD is a coming-of-age story, but it has three separate bigots in the starting town.

            (Also the Zaid quest was frustratingly dumb and was the point I stopped expecting anything from the game story-wise.)

            1. EwgB says:

              I think this is a matter of perspective. I didn’t interpret it as a coming of age story (not saying I am right, just that I didn’t see it that way). And the various bigotries of the respective societies I saw as an essential part of the worldbuilding – human societies reforming after the fall of civilization and building new forms of the same old crap, in-groups and out-groups, racism, sexism, xenophobia etc; a study on psychology and sociology if you will. It is all certainly painted with a broad brush, and I would not have accepted this from a movie, TV series or book. But considering the overall rather lackluster quality of plots and characters in video games, I found this quite good and refreshing.
              And as far as Zaid goes, I honestly had to look up what the quest was, I didn’t even remember. :-)

              1. Syal says:

                By “coming of age” I mean “mostly or fully from the perspective of the main character, who goes through a small arc of overcoming a local challenge, followed by the main arc of learning the world is bigger and more complicated than they thought, and also finding they have the power to affect it.”

  3. Lino says:

    A very well-made video! I also think it’s the best-edited one yet. It’s a shame they aren’t getting as many views. I wonder: would making a Twitter account help? Because apart from collaborations and click-baity titles/thumbnails, Twitter’s probably the best bet for getting your videos noticed.

  4. Karma The Alligator says:

    I only played AssCreed 1 and 2, and from what I saw they did have some plan (or at least that how it appeared to me) with the golden apples and aliens and templars vs assassins. Did that get abandoned at some point? Because I thought that was a pretty good setting.

    1. Gethsemani says:

      It is pretty obvious that they had a vague plan for the first few games, what with the reveal at the end of AC2 and the shock twist when Desmond kills his mission control at the end of whichever game that was (3? Retribution?). It was mostly dropped following the negative reception of the meta-story in AC3. However, Odyssey is obviously looking to kickstart it, what with the end reveal and DLC focusing a lot more on the Precursors, modern times and how they connect. From what I hear, the tie-ins (comics mainly) have also been doing quite a lot with the premise. Whether the stories being told are worthwhile, is highly subjective however.

      1. Shen says:

        The thing that hurts me most about the Desmond-side of the story was that they set up the exciting finale set-piece perfectly in the first game and then never delivered. The bad guys found the magical football and want to put it on top of a rocket. What better way to cap out the series about climbing on top of dangerous things could there possibly be than climbing on top of a rocket as it takes off? But no, his story comes to an end based on whether or not he should press the scary button while his nagging space-aunts bicker.
        It bothers me that I can never tell if the first writers planned the finale and later writers ruined it or if it never occurred to any of them. I just can’t possibly see an executive vetoing “woosh crikey rocket times” in favour of standing around talking, so it had to be the writers’ decision.

        1. Lino says:

          To me, Assassin’s Creed is proof that over-explanation can ruin a story. As a huge Prince of Persia fan, I eagerly anticipated the first AC, and I replayed it many times. What I loved the most was the cryptic ending, and how you had to piece the backstory on your own. The second game didn’t do much for me, however, and I haven’t played any of the games past the third installment, because the more explanations they piled on to the mystery, the duller it became to me.

          Just like monster movies have the rule of “Wait for an hour before you show the monster”, so too should mystery stories be careful how much they pile onto their mystery. At some point you need to do a big reveal and call it quits, otherwise you’re just adding clutter to an otherwise good story.

          1. Joshua says:

            I think there’s a fine balance for the amount of mystery for me, but there’s also the nature of it. I don’t personally care that much for stories that involve mysteries of not even understanding what’s happening on a general level (think David Lynch), even though a lot of people tend to like “open to interpretation” stories of this kind.

            On the other hand, I’m ok with not finding out about some character’s backstory, unless it’s incredibly relevant to what’s going on now, or what will happen. For example, knowing what happened to Jaime Lannister in his past is relevant, knowing how Nick Fury lost his eye or Han Solo got his dice isn’t.

            Then you have the typical Abrams “Mystery Box” issues, which is more of a problem just because it screams “This Is A Mystery!, want to hear more?” which is a whole other ballgame.

          2. Chris says:

            I wouldve disliked it if it stopped at AC1. Yes the final reveal of the blood was interesting, but implying everything myserious in the world (pyramids, the figures in the desert, some weird code written on the floor) is somehow connected and leaving no clues other than that would make me feel robbed. At least make it a bit clearer, you can leave some mysteries in, but at least make it a bit understandable how all the pieces fit.

      2. Thomas says:

        At the time people assumed Assassin’s Creed would be a trilogy and the third game might be playing as Desmond in the modern day.

        It was at the turning point of games becoming forever franchises and it clearly wasn’t built to go on forever. But they quickly realised AC was a perpetual goldmine. From that point the meta story was dead, however it was received. It’s too difficult to make a continuous meta story across games that are never going to end. It doesn’t fit with annual releases where people can’t be expected to play every game.

    2. Chris says:

      They planned it from AC1 to AC3. AC3 was supposed to come out with the 2012 apocalypse, it being a solar flare that would destroy modern tech (which almost happened). However making AC2 a mini trilogy inside of a trilogy and having a bunch of extra threads they tried to weave into the story weakened it.

      Then AC4 they were like “yeah we got this big thing that makes a shitload of money and gives us freedom to pick any timeframe” and then they just made yearly releases and seemingly nailed random stuff onto it.

      1. Sleeping Dragon says:

        Yup, Juno in AC3 is utterly perpendicular to the story and an asspull in a desperate attempt to create a sequel hook. The series has been increasingly theme-parky and recent games have been moving away from even that pretense towards “ancient history (techno)fantasy”, which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself but clearly divorced from the original idea.

    3. SidheKnight says:

      Kind of. The main conflict of AC 1 through 3 (the “Desmond saga”) got quickly solved and rather poorly in AC 3.

      The next 3 or 4 games mostly wandered aimlessly, setting some kinda interesting stuff up only to drop it later by unceremoniously resolving it in a tie-in comic.

      And the latest games, from what I’ve heard, barely have any overarching plot and the modern day stuff is almost gone.

  5. Asdasd says:

    As a lit major, I can only tell you that we learned depressingly little terminology pertaining to the effective creation of new literature, and a staggering amount pertaining to interpreting works that had already been written (often with the aim of taking a dump on it.)

    Maybe the Creative Writing graduates can help you out?

    1. Asdasd says:

      So I wasn’t very satisfied with this rather glib contribution, and I decided to reach back into the decades of my past and try to dredge up something from my studies that was actually relevant to Shamus’s argument. Here’s what I managed to find:

      You may receive an error message; if you scroll up or down a bit you should be able to get the page to load.

      It’s from Ford Madox Ford’s critical writings, specifically his essay On Impressionism. To fully grok what ‘Impressionism’ means to Ford isn’t vital for our purposes here, although it is interesting and the whole essay (in which he expands upon just that) is worthwhile.

      What’s most relevant is the thrust he begins under the heading ‘IV’. He outlines the criteria for maintaining a world in which the reader can be fully immersed, what he terms ‘the illusion’. He gives some important ‘dos’ and ‘don’t’s’. (Here the poet’s invocation of the Muse is akin to if Commander Shephard were to turn and wink at the camera; fourth-wall stuff.) He considers reasons for rejecting immersion as a goal (it’s hard work.) And he talks about consequentialism, specifically giving the example of the tragedy of someone’s distaste for a rabbit pie.

      He maintains that in order for the reader to feel the tragedy of the rabbit pie, you generate much of an effect from simply stating that ‘Mr Jones didn’t like rabbit pie.’ Rather, you have to establish the details which inform the circumstances by which a distaste for rabbit pie can become the central symbol in a tragic domestic scene:

      ‘In order to produce an illusion you must justify; in order to justify you must introduce a certain amount of matter that may not appear germane to your story or your poem […] and the point is this, that if your tragedy is to be absolutely convincing, it is not sufficient to introduce the fact of Mr Jones’s dislike for rabbit-pie by bare statement.’

      ‘And it is quite possible that a dislike for one form or other of food might form the integral part of a story. Mr Jones might be a hard-worked coal-miner with a well-meaning wife, whom he disliked because he was developing a passion for a frivolous girl. And it might be quite possible that one evening the well-meaning wife, not know her husband’s peculiarities, but desiring to give him a special and extra treat, should purchase from a stall a couple of rabbits and spend many hours in preparing for him a pie of great succulence, which should be a solace to him when he returns, tired with his labours and rendered nervous by his growing passion for the other lady.

      The rabbit-pie would then become a symbol – a symbol of the whole tragedy of life. It would symbolize for Mr Jones the whole of his wife’s want of sympathy for him and the whole of hi distaste for her; his reception of it would symbolize for Mrs Jones the whole hopelessness of her life.’

      (The point being that, while the tragedy turns on the dislike of rabbit pie, that distaste has to be justified in some way to really sell it to the reader. And that’s where world-building comes in.)

      He even goes on to discuss using racial justifications (in a way that might seem old-fashioned but don’t worry, isn’t actually racist) as a way to develop the background circumstances on which the plot turns, in the same way that Shamus praises Mass Effect for doing!

      It is, in effect, a mini-essay on world building. He goes on to consider the expedience of whether world-building is truly expedient on a few criteria: he concludes that it may not be interesting, but it is necessary if the final effect is to be convincing. He also concedes that ‘if the final province of art is convince, its first province is to interest […] to the extent that your justification is uninteresting, it is an artistic defect.’ And further allows that a story will have to have moments that excite interest as much as it does moments that prepare the groundwork that will convince.

      It’s only some five pages of criticism, but interesting, densely packed and (I think) quite relevant to the matter at hand.

      1. Asdasd says:

        D’oh, typo: you CAN’T generate much of an effect from simply stating that Mr Jones didn’t like rabbit pie.

      2. Lino says:

        That’s interesting. Skimming over it, it feels like he’s talking more about character development, but if you think about it, what is worldbuilding if not character development for the world the characters inhabit?

    2. Pax says:

      As a Creative Writing graduate… nope. They just made us write a bunch of stuff and then told us why it sucked.

      1. Lino says:

        Hmmm… Has anyone ever thought of making Creative Writing students write stuff that then gets analyzed by Lit majors? And if the Creative Writing majors disagree with the Lit majors’ critique, the two students fight to the death to see who’s right! And then we make the other students bet on who’s gonna win!

        Excuse me, I need to call Shark Tank…

        1. Hector says:

          No, but now I want to write a story about Creative Writing Deathmatch.

      2. Algeh says:

        You probably actually want a communication major for this. We spent a lot of time analyzing pop culture using fancy terms in one or two of my communication classes. Unfortunately, it’s been 20 years since I needed to be able to do that, so all I remember from the “fancy qualitative terms” part of that major right now is a vague dislike of semiotics. (I remember more useful things from other parts of that major, but doing formal qualitative analysis was not my favorite part. If I was going to be that rigid and precise in my terminology, and spend that much time classifying things into specific categories, I was going to pick a quantitative way to be rigid instead so I could do more interesting things with my data.)

        For what it’s worth, I feel like I use more of the things I learned in my communication classes than things I learned in my computer science classes when I teach computer game design to high school students now. (I studied both things in college, with the original plan of being a computer science professor doing research into human/computer interaction as a career path. That plan lasted until my first quarter of computer science grad school, when my new plan became not being in computer science grad school anymore.) I know communication is seen as a joke major, but there are actually a lot of interesting ideas in there even if it is much harder to fail a communication class than a math class for most people.

        1. Bubble181 says:

          Wait, is this where I pipe up and say he probably wants a philosophy major, since semiotics and defining the way we think and write is our department?
          However, similar to you, I haven’t used any of it in nearly 20 years, so, erm, yeah.

          1. Algeh says:

            I tried having a philosophy minor for a while! Then I took a 400 level seminar about Plato’s Republic where we had over 100 pages of reading each week, we met once a week late at night (so I’d have trouble staying awake in this 10-people-around-the-table class), and we were all eventually going to spend a class period reading our final papers aloud to the class (rather than writing something designed to be a speech that would be not-boring to hear read aloud), and I realized that I could also *not* be a philosophy minor since I’d already decided not to go to law school by then and it wouldn’t be particularly important to computer science grad programs anyway. (I’d been debating between going to grad school for human/computer interaction or going to law school with a focus on computer/high tech law my first couple of years in undergrad. I was trying to figure out how to turn “something with computers, but also talking to people, but definitely not tech support” into a career path.)

            The only particularly memorable thing I got out of that philosophy class at this point is that I had about half of the first book of Plato’s Republic re-written as a Pokemon battle in my head. (“Thrasymachus , use your elentic attack!”) I chose not to share this particular insight with my professor, though. (I liked several of the lower-level classes I’d taken before that, but I was just not enjoying that particular upper-level class.)

        2. Lino says:

          Wait, why is it called “Communication” when it’s about analyzing pop culture? Where I’m from, “Communication” refers to Telecommunication or stuff like International Relations. Here, pop culture analysis is what they do in Art-related disciplines.

          So what do you guys study in Communication?

          1. Algeh says:

            At the school I went to, Communication was considered to be one of the “Social Sciences” (like Sociology or Anthropology). It’s the department that oversaw the debate team, the school newspaper, the school radio station, and things like that. I took classes about specific things within film (I took an entire class about documentaries as a form), classes that taught public speaking skills, and classes about how to do various kinds of analysis, among other things. There were other classes available that focused more on the classics (I know there was one on on classical rhetoric), or more on other things that I don’t remember now (it is hard to remember specific classes that you didn’t take because they didn’t sound interesting at the time).

            Those analysis classes often had a pop-culture skew to them for things to analyze. I remember being assigned to a group project in my Rhetorical Criticism class that involved analyzing some X-Men comics, for example, and I remember doing a big paper looking at the different cover choices for a specific SF novel that had been reprinted several times with different covers. I also remember doing a quantitative research project that involved whether people would ascribe different themes to a song based on listening to it versus just being given the lyrics to read, and whether that changed if they were more familiar with the song’s genre. (Sadly, that was in another group project, where 2 of us cared and one of us did not, and she kept contaminating the data with her lazy sampling techniques so we didn’t get anything usable out of that project in the end. Basically, two people who were double majors in both a math-related discipline and communication were put with a senior who was terrified of math and put off the required communication quantitative methods course until spring of her senior year for a quantitative research project. Her goal was to get a C so she could pass the class and graduate on time, so she she just wanted to get her third of the surveys “done” without putting in much effort rather than use the sampling methods we’d designed.)

            1. Lino says:

              Wow, that sounds very intereting! So, it’s basically a combination of traditional social sciences, using examples based on pop culture so that it’s more interesting to the students.

    3. Nixorbo says:

      Also, what parties?

  6. GargamelLeNoir says:

    So I want to change things up this week by talking about something I love. The problem is that I don’t really have a good word for this thing.

    Mr BTongue called this strange process “reverse complaining” I believe, but it never really caught on. Too unfamiliar.

    1. Asdasd says:

      Ah, the old twentysided-a-roo.

    2. Erik says:

      It’s called “praise”. I know it’s an unfamiliar concept on the ‘net, but it’s usually extremely well received by recipients.

      1. Lino says:

        Wait, I’m confused. You’re telling me is there’s something that’s like complaining, but it doesn’t make the recipient feel like shit? Then what’s the point of putting it on the Internet?

        1. Asdasd says:

          Those recipients clearly need to be straightened out; it sounds like their way of thinking is all wrong. If they were smarter they’d realise how constructive and healthy criticism is for them.

  7. Kathryn says:

    I’m a worldbuilding nerd too. It’s difficult as a writer because sometimes I’m actually *trying* to just write a schlocky action story, but I get distracted working out all the details for, say, how two spaceships built in different solar systems can dock to each other (their ports weren’t immediately compatible, so they had to use docking port adapters. It’s irritating having to spend mass on that, but getting everyone to standardize on one docking port model would be impossible because of the intra-system politics involved…and now the reader who just wanted an exciting ray gun fight is long gone).

    Buzz Lightyear acting like a toy when he doesn’t know he is does bother me. Plus all the op sec the toys are constantly violating. There’s a scene where they have a whole conversation out loud while Andy’s mother is carrying them (in a box, but still).

    One of the things that bugs me most in kid movies is trying to figure out what language the characters are speaking. In Finding Nemo, I can buy that the Tank Gang understands spoken English, having all come from pet stores and the like, but how does *Nemo* understand it? What, he learned it in the three seconds he went to school?

    1. LadyTL says:

      if it helps, there is a market for expansive worldbuilding sci fi that sometimes has shooty bits. One of my favorite series that I reread alot spends ages of the series talking about how the world and tech works and why it works the way it does and I love every bit of it. Damn now I have to go back and reread the whole thing again. Thank you!

  8. camycamera says:

    Man, if you love “domino worldbuilding”, then you would LOVE LOVE LOVE the ASOIAF book series, yes the one that that really popular show that threw everything away about what made it good in the first place was based on. Domino worldbuilding GRRM’s jam. Character’s actions (and deaths) still echo even long after they’re no longer relevant to history. It’s mostly why it is far and away my favourite world/lore in any piece of media ever, hands down. It is so ridiculously detailed yet always somewhat relevant to something else and/or current events. And fingers crossed for book 6 this year to wash away the pain of the show. Please.

    Fallout 4 is a big pile drooling nonsense that conflicts with itself, other Fallout games, and common sense.

    We’re still waiting on that “The blistering stupidity of Fallout 4” series, Shamus!

    1. Lino says:

      We’re still waiting on that “The blistering stupidity of Fallout 4” series, Shamus!

      Yes! That would be awesome! As for A song of Ice and Fire, I’ve only read the first two books, and even though I’ve played myself into not reading the rest of them, I have to admit that Martin really does have a very engrossing writing style, and you just don’t feel how swiftly the pages go by.

      1. BlueHorus says:


        I love Shamus skewering a terrible story with his logic and his ability to think beyond the immediate / inability to turn off his brain.

        It’s also an excuse to dust off that Golden Riter award and hand out another.

        1. Karma The Alligator says:

          The closest we have so far is the Spoiler Warning season about FO4. It’s a start, but not enough.

        2. Trystan de Lyonesse says:

          I’d like to read it too.
          Still it’s hard to imagine how something so nonsensical as Fallout 4 could be analyzed, it’s bizarre Blade Runner fanfic in post-apocalypse written by seven years old.

          1. Chad Miller says:

            That’s why it’s so ripe for material. Any part of the game makes less sense the longer you look at it.

            “Why are the Gunners openly announcing their tactics?”
            “Why do those tactics themselves not make any sense?”
            “Hang on, why are the Gunners shooting at me at all? Where is the profit for them here?”
            “Wait a minute. Who hires the Gunners ever in this game? Do these writers even know what a ‘mercenary’ is?”

            1. Trystan de Lyonesse says:

              Oh my God, my brain hurts when I’m thinking about F4 writing.
              F3 at least had some salvageable plot points, characters, quests and maybe even themes.
              And in F4, the second you start thinking about anything in game, it all falls apart.

              1. Ninety-Three says:

                Hey, F4 had one good bit where a couple of NPCs are arguing about the edge cases of what technically counts as a sandwich.

                It’s terribly faint praise when I say that that was my favorite bit of writing in the game. The most disappointing part is that they’re not even real characters, it’s just a scripted bit the writer dropped on some no-name NPCs who have nothing to say to you and no interaction with the plot.

                1. Chad Miller says:

                  While I consider Fallout 4 the death of the franchise, even I will admit that I liked the Human Error sidequest; even with it’s flagrant flaws I’d go so far as to say I’d actively like a version of Fallout 4 where everything else lived up to that standard.

      2. BlueHorus says:

        I’ve only read the first two books [of ASOIAF], and even though I’ve played myself into not reading the rest of them, I have to admit that Martin really does have a very engrossing writing style, and you just don’t feel how swiftly the pages go by.

        Oh, don’t worry. If you ever make it to book five, you’ll start noticing EVERY page you have to slog through.

        1. Kylroy says:

          I think ASoIaF demonstrates one of the major perils of domino worldbuilding – you can end up more concerned with accurately tracking dominoes than telling a compelling story.

          1. MelTorefas says:

            I think ASoIaF demonstrates one of the major perils of domino worldbuilding – you can end up more concerned with accurately tracking dominoes than telling a compelling story.

            Ahh, yes. Also known as “The Wheel of Time Effect”.

            On a more serious note, I think Domino Worldbuilding is an interesting term/idea and reminds me of something else I’ve thought about. I usually think about stories depending on what drives them, and I’ve heard the terms Setting First, Character First, and Plot First used to describe the main focuses. Shamus’ example of Mass Effect I would call Setting First, while his made up example of the magic sword I would call Plot First. Something like Avatar: The Last Airbender I would call Character First. Any one of those could employ Domino Worldbuilding in theory.

            I tend to enjoy Character First stories the most; I find Setting First stories far too likely to run into the exact problem talked about above, and Plot First stories (like Shamus’ example with the magic sword) often fail to have enough coherence or depth to satisfy me. Character First stories, on the other hand, focus on what I care about: the individual people, the choices they make, the consequences of those choices, and their personal character arcs and how they intersect. I feel like Character First stories might lend themselves more to a Domino style, simply because action and consequence are the domain of people (even in the other types of stories, somewhere along the line the plot got shaped by some characters and their choices; that just isn’t as much the focus).

            …Anyways, this is a big tangent and probably a wild oversimplification. But I have always found analyzing stories in relation to these different focuses really interesting, and thinking about how they chain cause and effect domino-style will be a fun thing to add into the mix. In other words, good post! I liked. >.>

          2. Dewwy says:

            You have to remember to have your line of dominoes eventually wrap back around to its beginning, where hopefully you’ve had chance to reset the line.

            It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think it works.

        2. Joshua says:

          I disagree slightly for my personal feels of the books, but I think it’s a matter of time. At the time it was released, and for the first time reading it, I’m sure that A Feast for Crows was seriously annoying to many readers, because it’s more of an interlude or Act 2, but doesn’t really clue you into this. And then there wasn’t another book for 6 years. However, upon reread, knowing the general gist of where it’s going and that you’re not expecting the stories of the main characters, I think it’s more enjoyable and a brisker pace of reading than the first time. I also think A Dance with Dragons will be retroactively better with the publication of The Winds of Winter.

          That being said, there is a problem with A Dance with Dragons being mostly set-up, with the payoffs to come in the following book.

        3. Biggus Rickus says:

          I actually like the fourth and fifth ASOIAF books, but I’m a sucker for world building. I didn’t even mind the middle of The Wheel of Time series, and it is far worse about delving into the stories of unnecessary side characters. The downside of that needless expansion being that Jordan died before finishing the series. While Sanderson did an okay job of concluding it, it wasn’t great.

          1. Joshua says:

            Jordan was much worse for digressing than Martin, in my opinion. My personal theory is that he would experience writer’s block in how to wrap up all of the disparate plotlines he had started, and then decide that he would go “Double or Nothing” by adding more, in the hope that some new plot would provide the answer to solving the old plot.

            And then you have the abomination known as the Crossroads of Twilight, which was a stunning miscalculation rarely seen in other epic stories.

            I also think Sanderson did an “ok” job with completing it, but don’t agree with the huge amounts of praise he seems to get. He got the plot moving, but it didn’t feel like quite the same story to me. Which really isn’t his fault, but was just the nature of the assignment.

            1. Biggus Rickus says:

              Crossroads was the only one in the series I think fully deserves to be called “tedious”. Jordan did get back on track with Knife of Dreams before he died, and I would have liked to have read his own conclusion to the series. But that’s life.

              1. Syal says:

                Crossroads is easily the worst since there’s like one plot point in a thousand pages, but Lord of Chaos adding all the Forsaken back into the pool was the one that really bugged me. They’re down to five by the end of the fifth book, and then suddenly they’re back up to eleven.

                I liked Sanderson’s first two books, though I think he got Mat wrong. But the last book was one big battle, and that never ever works.

                1. Biggus Rickus says:

                  It didn’t help that he couldn’t get Mat right, as he was central to that book-long battle.

                  1. Joshua says:

                    Agreed. Mat was so weird in those books. You could tell it was a different author.

                2. Sleeping Dragon says:

                  Oh yeah, that was literally the point I stopped reading. I was somewhat into it up till that moment but then I was like “oh, so the author is basically going to reset them and start the whole circus anew, oookay then, he’s gonna die before he wraps this up” and being a big fan of stories that have an ending I gave up on the series (for the record I don’t know if Jordan’s condition was already public knowledge but I had no idea at the time).

                3. Joshua says:

                  Some people really liked the last book, I guess. But it just was so wearying to me. At the time I was reading, I remember the battle starting up about 25% of the way through the book or so, and was thinking “Wait a second, this can’t be right, we can’t be starting yet, can we?”

                  That point about three separate duels with Demandred too was just so annoying to me as well.

                4. Joshua says:

                  And if you’re talking about Egwene getting captured, it’s such a blink and you’ll miss it plot point, whereas the rest of the book is just tedium. It was an experiment by Jordan to write a book of nothing but reaction shots to the event of the previous book, “Where were you when X happened”, but that meant that virtually everything described in the book was meaningless to the actual plot because it’s just filler until each point where the character gets to react to the event in question. It was an experiment that horribly failed.

  9. Thomas says:

    This video was fun! It was cool to have the Mass Effect story laid out like that and I was convinced by the theme. I want to apply this to other world-building and see how well the idea transfers to settings I love

  10. tmtvl says:

    I know there was a goofy space game a few years ago that had this problem, but I can’t remember what it was called.

    Yeah that one! What was it again… Miss Event or something like that?

    1. Trystan de Lyonesse says:

      I heard, that some guy wrote a very long retrospective about it, somewhere on internet.

      1. Lino says:

        I’d be very interested to read Shamus’ take on the series. It would be good for the blog – he might be able to get about 2 or 3 articles out of it.

        But I doubt it would be suitable for a long-running series. I mean, who in their right mind would read (or WRITE!) 50 chapters about Mass Effect! Could you imagine?!

    2. Philadelphus says:

      No no, Star Control 3 is clearly the space game Shamus was thinking of, where the sequel abandoned the masterful Domino Worldbuilding of Star Control 2: The Ur-Quan Masters which made it one of the best games of all time (to be ever-so-slightly fair, the sequel was made by a completely different company and writing team who just didn’t have the same knack for worldbuilding or writing as Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III). (Also, all the aliens were puppet FMV in their appearances? Talk about goofy.)

      Seriously, the events of Star Control 2 are all just the latest dominoes in a series that started falling over 20,000 years years before the start of the game (or even more if you consider the Precursors and their effects on the galaxy), and you get to piece it all together throughout the game from various sources, including the Big Bad Evil Aliens themselves.

  11. Olivier FAURE says:

    How do they obtain supplies in a lifeless wasteland?

    Okay, you have to read A Practical Guide to Evil.

    The story is basically dedicated to explaining the logistics of how an empire of evil and treachery located in a barren wasteland would function (and also boring YA stuff like a heroine rising through the ranks and fighting for the sovereignty of her country, but who cares).

    1. beleester says:

      It’s got a pretty good example of domino worldbuilding, now that I think about it.

      1. The Dread Empire of Praes is, due to a past Empress’s bad decision-making, living in a barren wasteland. Their farmland is poor and barely sustained by sacrificial rituals.
      2. Therefore, they declare war on the fertile kingdom of Callow. In fact, they try this many times, whenever the population pressure gets bad enough.
      3. Therefore, Callow has a long history of fighting off oppressive evil empires, and they’ve gotten very good at it. Almost every invasion has either failed, or succeeded *just* long enough for a band of plucky young heroes to rise in rebellion and kick the invaders out.
      4. However, the newest villains in charge have studied their history, and noticed this pattern.
      5. Therefore, many years of reforms to stop being dumbass Disney villains, develop a bureaucracy capable of running an empire efficiently, and train the orcish hordes into a professional military.
      6. Therefore, the villains successfully conquer Callow this time, and have been ruling it in an efficient, evil-but-makes-the-trains-run-on-time sort of way.
      7. However, bands of plucky heroes are becoming increasingly common, and the Black Knight’s current solution of quietly assassinating any heroes he can find before they become a problem is unsustainable.
      8. Therefore, the Black Knight wants to train up a Callowan villain to support the Empire, to try and break the pattern of young, idealistic Callowans becoming heroes and starting rebellions.

      …and now we’ve arrived at the start of the story, where the Black Knight offers Catherine a role as his Squire.

      (You can also insert a few more “therefores” in other places that provide worldbuilding details or set up conflicts in later books. Almost everything in Callow – the design of their cities, their army doctrine, the general attitude of their citizens, their songs, the presence of various MacGuffins – can be traced back to their long history of getting conquered and rebelling.)

      1. Kathryn says:

        Agreed! And I definitely second the recommendation of PGtE. I LOVE that story. The update schedule going down to twice a week is killing me.

  12. BlueHorus says:

    Man, reading about the Genophage reminded me of how Bioware used to craft grey moral quandaries well. Listening to Wrex and the female Krogan from the third game discuss the effect it’s had on their race was great.

    I also loved the dynamic between Mages & Templars (or Mages & Everyone Else) in the DA games, even though it got done to death. But it was really one of those situations with no clear right and wrong.
    One side shouts ‘See? THIS [horrible disaster] is why we need to lock Mages up and persecute them!’
    The other shouts ‘If you hadn’t locked [mage] up and treated him like shit, [disaster] wouldn’t have happened!’
    And they’re both right. And wrong.

    Merril in DA2 was a good example: the ostracisation she received from her tribe was the exact reason for her dangerous magical research, which only made them dislike her more, which pushed her further into it…and it all ended in the death of the one person EVERYONE in the tribe liked.
    Just bone-headed stubbornness all round, ending in tragedy.

  13. Hector says:

    I’m pretty sure Star Wars is now a good example of a series ruined by the idiocy if later writers… who were ironically brought in to fix Lucas’s supposed mistakes.

    People have been arguing over exactly which director or writer is responsible, but for my money the culprit is corporate, which went off to do something without ever having a plan and has since served wildly in reaction to every movie.

    1. The Puzzler says:

      It could also be used as an example of how a series can be ruined by leaving it in the hands of the original writer…

      1. Trystan de Lyonesse says:

        I’d say it’s lack of vision in both instances. In one, it was one man with some vague ideas, but without vision, unchallenged by his peers and subordinates. And in later, it was lack of vision typical for big corporations, where everything is evaluated by statistics, checkboxes, marketing researches etc.

        1. Hector says:

          I’d agree that Lycas jumped into his prequels without enough develop, yet he did clearly have a vision for the series and improved greatly over time. He had failures as well as success, but he was always moving forward.

          Disney, on the other hand, is spinning its wheels because they don’t really know what they’re after except making money. Of course they mean well, but I’m not sure they even understand why they keep running into narrative walls.

          1. Kylroy says:

            I’ve said that the prequel trilogy and the sequel trilogy are bad in completely opposite ways.

            The prequels (well, OK, episodes 2 & 3…) have a story that could be real interesting if done well. Instead we get a story of a hero throwing everything away for the woman, where he’s never particularly heroic and has zero chemistry with his alleged lover. It could have been entertaining – I still maintain Obi Wan’s half of episode 2 is good stuff – but the moment to moment execution keeps taking you out of the story.

            Conversely, the sequels have excellent entertainment value in the service of a story that is either derivative, threadbare, or pointlessly iconoclastic. Turning Luke into a grumpy coward was irritating, but damned if Hamill didn’t sell me on it being true.

            1. Higher_Peanut says:

              I like Obi-Wan’s stuff in the prequels. The internet (that mysterious hive mind) kept trying occasionally to get Ewan Mcgregor to come back for a spin off movie. Star Wars movies are probably due for a bit of a cooldown though.

              The prequels had some cool scenes that completely failed to fit together. Pod-racing is cool. Space chariot death races should have been amazing but how they got there was weird. A bet because the one person with the part has plot mandated immunity to force powers? I’ll never get over the way no one on the planet seemed to be amazed an 8 year old was a master mechanic (+ droid builder) and so good at racing he won (and was the sole finisher of) a race where he was lapped by every single opponent before he even started.

            2. guy says:

              The main story with the decline between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy is that Lucas is bad at writing shooting scripts and everyone knew that, including himself, but in the prequel trilogy he was less willing/able to try to get someone else to write the scripts.

          2. djingdjan says:

            I don’t think Lucas ever understood what made Star Wars so great in the first place, going back to his interviews from the 70s and he’s going off on how the massive appeal of Star Wars could be solely traced to the droids

  14. Bookwyrm says:

    Shamus mentioned Mass Effect! Drink!

    1. EwgB says:

      I can’t, I’m at work. Also, I would be dead by the end of the article.

    2. Higher_Peanut says:

      Is this the new Twenty Sided drinking game? How much do we drink if he mentions the original fallout?

  15. Ninety-Three says:

    Here I have to point out the plot hole/fridge logic/whatever in Mass Effect’s backstory. The Krogan’s impact on the story only makes sense because the writer indicates two dimensional thinking treats this like a land war. The Krogan being fast-breeding and good in a fistfight just shouldn’t matter in a setting with spaceships. Unless they’re also really good at setting up spaceship factories, they shouldn’t have had much to contribute in the Rachni war, and once the war was over how exactly did they threaten the existing races who all had established fleets and factories?

    Maybe you could fix the problem by writing some codex entries about why actually this was like a land war, but instead the codex gives us dozens of pages on spaceship combat and nothing to suggest it would ever matter who has the best shock troops. By default, whoever has the better spaceships has air superiority and can bombard the surface of a planet from a safe distance: even if you can somehow land troops without winning the space battle, your troops are going to get vaporized from orbit.

    1. Thomas says:

      This is something that’s bothered me about Mass Effect forever! Everything in every game is built around the idea that physical combat is the dominant method of warfare, even though that doesn’t make sense in the games setting.

      Solarians are rubbish at fighting because they’re smart and fragile, Krogans are good because they’re dumb and strong. What?? How does that make sense in space.

      The Rachni as you see them in these games are these vicious scuttling monsters – but what actually made them a threat is they’ve got fantastic shipyards.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        Fantastic shipyards…and a hive mentality, and a massive workforce of drones who work all day every day.
        As well as soldiers who wouldn’t think twice at kamikaze attacks or diving in front of the enemy’s guns if it helped the greater force.

        They didn’t necessarily have the best spaceships, but I bet you they had the most spaceships in any war.

        …which might even apply to the Krogan? Similar to Warhammer 40k’s Orks – Orks’ spaceships are terrible, but there’s just so MANY.
        A traditional orky tactic (‘Tactikal Finkin’ ‘) is to attach crude spaceworthy engines to 100+ asteroids and then launch them at a planet – sure, some’ll get destroyed before they land, but not all. And each one is teeming with orks…

        That could work for the Krogan? Though they definitely suffer from the Klingon scientist problem.

        1. Thomas says:

          That might work. Some kind of equivalent of the basilisk drop ship. That’s a pretty important area to never even touch on though. I don’t think we see a Krogan ship in the entire game? And when we got to Tuchanka they’re struggling to maintain their all-terrain vehicles

    2. Dreadjaws says:

      It was obviously a land war. As far as we know, the Rachni don’t use spaceships (or at least not propietary ones) and they’re the invading force. Any air attack is only going to damage the surface of the planets populated by the invaded races, because that’s where the Rachni will be. Land war is simply the best choice, otherwise you’d be damaging your own home.

      Sure, the US won against Japan by bombarding them with atomic bombs, but note how they used those bombs in Japan and not in US soil. And the US had the advantage of knowing where Japan was. When the Salarians opened the mass relay that led them to the Rachni world, the Rachni attacked long before they had a chance to study which worlds contained Rachni life, which would have taken at least several months of not being attacked, which was obviously not going to happen.

      1. Ninety-Three says:

        It was obviously a land war. As far as we know, the Rachni don’t use spaceships

        What? How do you think they travel through space? This isn’t Stargate, they need some way of getting from their planets to our planets. And I’m pretty sure that the completely uncontacted race doesn’t somehow have a fleet of Generica-brand Alliance cargo vessels. This naturally leads to the question of “Why don’t our ships blow up their ships before they land on our planets?”, the obvious response is “because their ships blew up our ships”, and suddenly we have a conflict where technology and industrial base matters far more than how fast you breed or how well you can take a punch.

        1. Trystan de Lyonesse says:

          Rachni definitely was spacefaring race, that’s right.
          Maybe they had a way to conceal their ships, they might be organic, non-detectable by some scanners, or visually might look like asteroids.
          And the main advantage, that rachni had, they need to deliver one or few queens to the planet and they’ll have reinforcements as long, as queens are intact.
          Well, I’ll agree that there is definitely lack of proper explanations in game for this, but it’s rather a shallow point in the lore and not a plot hole.

      2. shoeboxjeddy says:

        The Rachni were 100% a spacefaring race with their own fleet of starships. Think the Buggers/Formics from Ender’s Game (which it seems to me they were based on).

        1. Chad Miller says:

          How much was discussed of the spaceships? I had it in my head that they space-traveled by some biological means like the Zerg.

          1. Thomas says:

            To quote the wiki “The rachni used their extensive research on element zero to reverse-engineer the FTL drives of the explorers’ starships. They proceeded to construct FTL vessels of their own and rapidly expanded into the galaxy, ushering in the Rachni Wars.”

            See, this is where Mass Effect is weird. In the game they present them as scary because they spit acid. In the lore the Rachni are scary because they’re good scientists.

    3. Trystan de Lyonesse says:

      Rachni are essentially arachnids from Starship Troopers. And we’ve seen in ME 1, that they can submerge under ground, and we’ve been told that they can survive in extreme conditions for a long time, so orbital bombardment isn’t the best measure against them. Also rachni were attacking Citadel worlds, and as I know bombardment of your own cities isn’t right thing to do.
      Also as I understand, salarians gave krogans weapons and ships and they adopted technologies and start to produce their own equipment and vessels. And they had a lot of manpower and a lot of resources from the worlds, that was given to them.

    4. shoeboxjeddy says:

      The Krogan were “uplifted” which also means they were given the understanding of how to properly make/maintain spaceships. With the knowledge of how to do so and the resources available from fast colonization efforts, it seems that they had a fleet that was able to match the Turian/Salarian/Asari competition. Does that make perfect sense? Eh, maybe not, but my understanding is that the Krogan were bombing the home worlds of the other races or taking them over in ground war. Yeah, you could then orbital bombard your own planet that’s being invaded but… that’s clearly stupid and self defeating.

    5. CountAccountant says:

      The original Mass Effect did make an effort to address your concerns. They aren’t perfect explanations, and they are buried in codex entries, but they do exist. They may or may not satisfy your suspension of disbelief. I’m providing them as information in an attempt to be helpful.

      According to the codex, the most destructive planetary bombardment doesn’t need fleets OR soldiers. It just involves towing an asteroid into a collision course with the planet. This is a war crime when used against habitable planets because it ruins the planet.

      Fleets themselves are used to gain orbital superiority. They are not analogous to Earth fleets because the weaker fleet can always retreat with no consequences. You don’t (usually) destroy the enemy’s fleets, you just temporarily gain orbital superiority wherever your fleet happens to be.

      Ground forces are needed to actually follow up on the advantage gained by the fleet and occupy the spaceports, industrial facilities, and major population centers. Kinetic bombardment is prohibited against habitable worlds because, again, it risks destroying the habitability of the planet. If you are willing to destroy the habitability of planet, you could have saved yourself a lot of trouble and just used an asteroid.

      The result is that war is a careful interaction of fleets, ground defenses, and reconnaissance. It may not be an air tight explanation, but at least it’s an explanation.

      From the codex:

      Battles in open space are short and often inconclusive, as the weaker opponent generally disengages.

      Once a ship enters FTL flight the combat is effectively over; there are no sensors capable of tracking them, or weapons capable of damaging them. The only way to guarantee an enemy will stand and fight is to attack a location they have a vested interest in, such as a settled world or a strategically-important mass relay.

      And also

      Planetary assaults are complicated if the target is a habitable garden world; the attackers cannot approach the defenders straight on.

      The Citadel Conventions prohibit the use of large kinetic impactors against habitable worlds. In a straight-on attack, any misses plough into the planet behind the defending fleet. If the defenders position themselves between the attackers and the planet, they can fire at will while the attacker risks hitting the planet.

      Successful assaults on garden worlds hinge upon up-to-date intelligence. Attackers need to determine where the enemy’s defenses are, so they may approach from an angle that allows them to fire with no collateral damage. Note this is not necessary for hostile worlds.

      Once control of orbit has been lost, defensive garrisons disperse into the wilderness. An enemy with orbital superiority can bombard surface forces with impunity. The best option for defenders is to hide and collect reconnaissance in anticipation of relief forces.

      Given the size of a planet, it is impractical to garrison entire conquered worlds. Fortunately, colonization efforts tend to focus on building up a dozen or fewer areas. Ground forces occupy the spaceports, industrial facilities, and major population centers. The wilderness is patrolled by unmanned aerial vehicles1 and satellite reconnaissance. If a defender unit is spotted, airmobile rapid deployment units and satellite artillery are used to pin down and destroy them.

      I’m having trouble locating the codex entry on acceptable and unacceptable forms of planetary bombardment (e.g. asteroids) online, but I promise it existed when I played Mass Effect 1 in the codex itself.

      1. CountAccountant says:

        Ah, here’s the entry on asteroids and other weapons of mass destruction. It was under “Citadel and Galactic Government” instead of “Space Combat”. Again, FYI only.

        From the Codex:

        The Conventions regulate the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction. A WMD causes environmental alteration to a world. A bomb that produces a large crater is not considered a WMD; a bomb that causes a ‘nuclear winter’ is.

        Use of WMD is forbidden on ‘garden’ worlds like Earth, with ecospheres that can readily support a population. If a habitable world is destroyed, it will not be replaced for millions of years. The Conventions do not forbid the use of WMD on hostile worlds or in sealed space-station environments. Many militaries continue to develop and maintain stockpiles.

        The Conventions graded Weapons of Mass Destruction into tiers of concern; Tier I is the greatest threat to galactic peace.

        TIER I: Large kinetic impactors, such as asteroid drops or de-orbiting space stations. Effectively free and available in any system (in the form of debris left over from planetary accretion), kinetic impactors are the weapon of choice for terrorists and ‘third galaxy’ nations.

        TIER II: Uncontrolled self-replicating weapons, such as nanotechnology, viral or bacteriological organisms, ‘Von Neumann devices’, and destructive computer viruses. These weapons can lie dormant for millennia, waiting for a careless visitor to carry them on to another world.

        TIER III: Large energy-burst weapons, such as nuclear or antimatter warheads.

        TIER IV: Alien species deliberately introduced to crowd out native forms necessary for the health of an ecosystem. Ecological tampering can take years to bear fruit, making it difficult to prove.

        1. Leviathan902 says:

          Thanks for posting all this.
          It’s SO FREAKING GOOD

    6. GoStu says:

      I don’t see this as a major plot hole, but I appreciate the chance to debate it.

      I think the ME1 codex mentions something about space warfare in the setting: it’s pretty much impossible to force the other fleet to commit to it. Unlike other space-war settings where the rules are ambiguous (Star Wars, Star Trek) or there’s tech to make the other guy stand and fight a little (Elite), in Mass Effect fleets are pretty free to just go to FTL and run for a long time. Eventually they’ll have to discharge hull charge and take on supplies, but they can lead you on one hell of a merry chase. My conclusion: Scouring the Galaxy to purge every Krogan warship is not plausible.

      So even if the Krogan aren’t great at making warships, they can make life hell for your civilians just about anywhere with guerrilla actions. The scale of the galaxy kind of prohibits keeping such a tight grip around every possible occupied planet that the Krogan could never slip a transport through, nor does it permit you to stop & search every ship to make sure it’s not a bunch of Krogan pretending to be someone else. They will get to your planets and civilian populations and they will make it a ground war unless you really feel like mucking up the entirety of intra-galactic trade and travel. Even if you patrol the Mass Relays, Krogan are long-lived and “conventional” FTL is a thing. You can go from one system to another the “hard way” and get there. (Cryo-sleep is a thing established in the setting too).

      Space superiority in Mass Effect makes me think of air superiority in real life. You can bombard the hell out of an area, but you don’t own it until you’ve got infantry on it. The best you can do is render it uninhabitable – and guess what? The Krogan thrive on bombed-out hellscapes, unlike your own civilian population. So unless you’re prepared to meet them in ground combat and scour them off the surface of your worlds without turning it into smoking craters, you’re not going to be rid of them.

      Devil’s advocate though: Maybe the authors really never thought of this. Seriously doubt the ME3 team would have, but I give a lot of credit to the ME1 writing team.

  16. Dreadjaws says:

    They should really hire Batman to write these long worldbuilding-based stories. He always has a plan for everything.

    Well, if your intention was to fool me into re-reading your Mass Effect Retrospective for a third time, you might just have triumphed. Have you considered releasing it in audiobook form, though?

  17. CountAccountant says:

    I think this is one of your best columns yet, Shamus.

    I love your writing, because you make me see things in new ways and understand connections I never noticed even in works I am very familiar with. But I also tend to dread reading your perspectives on things that I love. There’s always a risk that I will never be able to enjoy it again once the veil has been lifted. You aren’t negative – you’re accurate, and that’s far worse for my ability to continue to enjoy something with previously unnoticed flaws.

    This column is the best of both worlds. It brings your trademark Shamus insight in a way that makes me more excited about the subject instead of less. Very well done.

  18. Trevor says:

    I am also impressed with the way Mass Effect 1 introduces the world to you. As Shamus laid out here, the world building is great, but it also delivers it to the player in a great way. And this is all the more impressive because the world building about the Rachni and Genophage is not completely relevant to your quest to track down and stop Saren. The world of, e.g., Pillars of Eternity and other RPG worlds are similarly detailed, but BioWare outdoes all of them in ME1 because it did a really good job parceling out their world building.

    There’s the Codex which they used a non-zero amount of budget to voice. Instead of just walls of text to read on your screen, there’s someone reading the big stuff to you (and I like the guy’s voice). That makes it much more dynamic and interesting than just a miniature book to read. They thought to separate the big stuff (which is voiced) and the filler or color stuff that is not, so if you’re not a completist you can still get a lot of the story by just listening to the audio entries. They have the Avinas you can interact with as you explore the Citadel who will infodump in the disguise of tourism. And then, as Shamus pointed out, you have your companions. BioWare did an excellent job layering in world building with their characters. If Wrex (Shepard) were just an encyclopedia of Krogan facts and history, he would be boring to talk to. But in his little stories he gives you bits of the world and its history and so the world is built for the player organically.

  19. Supah Ewok says:

    Man, I was really hoping that the link in “Any halfway successful game is going to have a sequel, whether it needs one or not” was going to lead to Kane & Lynch 2.

  20. Geebs says:

    Doom (2016) is Domino Worldbuilding with, like, two dominoes. Hell literally exists AND humanity are giant dumbasses THEREFORE…..

    1. Supah Ewok says:

      You are huge! THEREFORE you have huge guts!

      Rip and tear!

  21. Alberek says:

    Great Video
    But I have some gripes
    “Looking back, you can see that a lot of it was sort of inevitable” It’s kind of a weird way to look at history as a whole, deterministic if you will. Which in a way, I think, it’s opposite of what you are trying to say.

    What makes ME1 so great is what makes any story great, it has well defined characters with personalities, goals and problems. And when you throw interesting characters at each other DRAMA happens…

    Okay you probably need a backdrop for all the story to happen, the cultures, the places, the technology and weirds.

  22. Decius says:

    The thing is, the Mass Effect backstory wasn’t written the way you tell it, with “therefore”.

    It was backwritten to meet the plot requirements: “We need a race of really violent but kinda dumb aliens, we’ve got this concept art, what made them really violent but kinda dumb? Why haven’t they taken over the universe already? We’ve got this idea for instant transport networks that the player can unlock and discover brand new areas… why hasn’t someone else already unlocked all of them?”

    It’s still a backstory and world built to gameplay requirements, but with the added requirement “Must continue to make sense after it’s been questioned.” The key feature is that the writers specifically asked all of the questions you are asking about the world and altered the story to have satisfactory answers, and then left information about the answers around the world.

    When refining a story in this manner, sometimes you have to unwrite large portions of the world, because the implications of the thing you wrote to justify one plot point or gameplay element end up conflicting with a different one in a way that’s hard to patch.

    1. Richard says:

      The same is true of (good) book plots/settings et al.

      The writer (usually) has a particular story to tell, and so sets up the world so that story makes sense. If they’re really good, they can make the story they wanted to tell seem to be the almost-inevitable, yet non-obvious, result of the history they created without idiot balls or nonsequitors..

      Backtracking the therefores and howevers is basically the only way to set up the world the way it needs to be for the story they’re trying to tell. The tough part is making sure each of desired trouserlegs of time the most probable, or at least pretty likely.

      It’s almost always painfully obvious when a writer hasn’t done that – it makes the denoumént feel like a deus ex machina, or perhaps worse, “WTF didn’t [HERO/VILLIAN] do that earlier?”

      1. Decius says:

        I can handle some really unlikely results, as long as none of the mandatory results is missing.

  23. Syal says:

    Putting in the effort to establish a coherent setting… makes things easier when another writer takes over later.

    Disagree. The more integrated you make the details of your setting, the harder it will be to integrate new things in the future. That’s what creates retcons. Making a sequel easier is just about leaving some loose ends.

    1. Mako says:

      Disagree right back. It’s just the matter of sticking to the established principles, and then the sequel basically writes itself. The hard part is to bother to be constrained by the guidelines laid by the original.

      1. Richard says:

        I’m with Mako. If the setting is well-written, integrating new things is easier because you already have ground rules. You can toss out all the characters, start the story 50 years down the line when the previous lot are passing into legend – and it’ll still work.

        The real world has history and ground rules, yet all kinds of things really happen. New technology is invented, people justify inexcusable actions because of %possibly_misremembered_historical_event%…

        FTL travel is possible, yet difficult – this immediately explains why anyone needs Mass Relays and why they’re possible to use in the first place.

        Couple of Really Big things that could have been done in Mass Effect to create a new conflict:
        – What if somebody figures out how to build a spacecraft that can FTL for noticably longer than before?
        – What if somebody figures out how to build a Mass Relay?

        1. Syal says:

          Do you have an example of a domino story skipping ahead fifty years and still working?

          The real world has glaring plot holes, contrivances, a bad habit of reusing old plots, and no idea when to stop introducing new characters. I don’t recommend it unless you’re getting it on sale.

          The galactic races are established as not wanting to open existing relays because of the Rachni War, what would they want with a new one? It would have to either be the Krogan or the humans as the ones who don’t care about the Rachni, or someone specifically trying to chase down the Reapers. Krogans and humans doing it doesn’t compete with the previous story’s “blow up a Reaper to prevent galactic genocide”, so they’re trying to chase Reapers. I guess the conflict would be about whether they were indoctrinated or not and deciding whether to stop them.

          So what’s the conflict for Part 3? Remember you’re competing with stuff like Conan the Barbarian and its fourteen hundred sequels. Conan’s setting is loose enough that you can just say “then he went over there” and do mostly whatever you want.

          1. Lino says:

            Do you have an example of a domino story skipping ahead fifty years and still working?

            Off the top of my head, the four-part Hyperion Cantos – books 3 and 4 take place more than 200 years after the original. Some of the fans really dislike the latter books (although, going by review scores, they’re a minority), one of my favourite parts of books 3 and 4 is seeing how the world has changed in these 200 years, and how the new characters deal with it. It’s also really nice seeing what happened to the old characters – some are dead, and are now spoken of with reverence.

      2. GoStu says:

        Agree with Mako, disagree with Syal.

        If you have a comprehensive (and sensible) setting, it gives a lot of guidance to future writers if they want to use it. Setting up the factions, the resources, the history, and the like can half-write the story for you: a competent writer can pick up and make something that fits.

        Video Game Analogy: An experienced Civilization player could tell you some very plausible stories of a game based solely on the map and the starting positions. If I see a long-term powerhouse sitting in rich land on turn 0, with an aggressive early civ sitting in comparatively poorer lands, I can come up with a narrative of how the aggressors attacked just to ensure they had a future. Or I could tell you a story about the rich society choosing to push around the poorer one, feeling threatened and jealously guarding what they had. In either case I can reach a coherent narrative, and someone seeing the general shape of things at any point could probably come to a similar story.

        Tabletop Analogy: I DM a table of D&D and play at a couple others, and I can say with great confidence that these shared settings of the D&D worlds have lent themselves to great stories. The setting is established and the motives of factions are clear(ish) – so numerous authors, both professional and homebrewing amateur DMs, can tell a story from that strong framework a lot more easily and coherently than working from pure homebrew.

      3. Trystan de Lyonesse says:

        Agree with Mako.
        But I should add, that we’re talking about good, solid writing in the first place. Which exclude needlessly overcomplex or convoluted ideas, that might hold next writer’s hand, I think.

        1. Richard says:

          True, it is also entirely possible for the first set of writers to completely screw over all that come after.

          I’d say that more commonly done by either introducing glaring plot holes (if people can XXX, YYY makes no sense!), or by ‘destroying the universe’ – a denoumént that significantly breaks the setting (changes all the rules, kills everyone etc).

          Both of those then have to be retconned for the next installment – ZZZ prevents XXX under certain circumstances, not everybody died, only one rule changed etc.
          Which is often extremely difficult to do in a believable fashion.

  24. Mako says:

    I’m sensing Another Funeral for Mass Effect approaching…

    Also, nitpick: using the post ME3/Andromeda image as a poster for krogan in an article singing the (well deserved) praises of ME1 feels wrong.

  25. tmtvl says:

    Speaking of Mass Effect, have they announced Andromeda 2 yet? Or was it ME4? Whichever.

    1. Trystan de Lyonesse says:

      They’re desperately trying to remake Anthem for unknown reasons, so no ME or DA in nearest future.

      1. Higher_Peanut says:

        I’m willing to bet the reason is close to sunk loss fallacy from the higher ups. Our designated cash cow we sunk all this money into isn’t paying out, go fix it and quickly.

        1. Sleeping Dragon says:

          To some extent this, if we’ve already spent 100m dollars on this project it would really be a shame to drop it if all it needs is another patch, or a few more dungeons, or a new game mode that can be done fairly cheaply now that the assets, mechanics, engine, servers etc. are all in place. Also I have no insider knowledge but I think them liveservice games from big publishers tend to start with a buffer budget that can keep them going for even as much as a couple years, and since nobody wants to be the guy who pulls the plug they just kind of peter out with updates getting delayed, features getting canned, eventually the patching stopping and finally the servers getting quietly shut down by the point where pretty much nobody cares.

  26. evileeyore says:

    TFW Shamus doesn’t call it Sequential Worldbuilding.

  27. This kind of worldbuilding is the difference between a STORY, and a PLOT. A story is just a sequence of events in chronological order (or maybe not even that). A PLOT is a LOGICAL series of INTERCONNECTED events that proceed step by logical step, therefore by therefore, consequence by consequence.

    Stories are driven by outside events that may be causeless (the bad guy is just evil) or random (coincidence, accidents, etc.) Plots are driven by motivations, which are created by *ideas*.

    Stories are about events. Plots are about IDEAS.

  28. Tonich says:


    but the author also as a lot of other tools

    I guess it should be “the author has

    Also, I saw this article published while I was having a discussion with a friend about game characters with backstories, and we were referring to Mass Effect… now I have a weird feeling of being watched. :)

  29. MarsLineman says:

    The below quoted/ linked article is about sociological vs psychological story-telling, and it neatly fits your definition of domino world-building (specifically sociological story-telling). Although the article is arguing the case that Game of Thrones shifted from sociological story-telling to psychological (when the books ran out), this argument could easily be applied to the Mass Effect trilogy (ME1 = sociological, ME2-3 = psychological)

    “At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.

    After the show ran ahead of the novels, however, it was taken over by powerful Hollywood showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Some fans and critics have been assuming that the duo changed the narrative to fit Hollywood tropes or to speed things up, but that’s unlikely. In fact, they probably stuck to the narrative points that were given to them, if only in outline form, by the original author. What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.

    This is an important shift to dissect because whether we tell our stories primarily from a sociological or psychological point of view has great consequences for how we deal with our world and the problems we encounter.”

    1. Trystan de Lyonesse says:

      I have an issue with the whole idea of separating sociological and psychological storytelling. Personal growth, drama between characters, etc. all this can be considered “psychological storytelling”, or drama-first approach, as we knew it. But it should have “sociological” elements as background, or to be more precise, as a context of characters interactions, feelings and emotions. Almost the same goes for the opposite, without compelling characters, developing in response to environment they put in, we have no vessel to experience this environment, no matter how detailed and thought-out it is.

      Also I have even bigger issue with soap opera-esque writing being called “psychological”.

      Hm. Article even says the same thing, almost as I did. I think here is the flaw in it, author tries to give a broad social commentary in a click-bait article and whole point about storytelling became muddled.
      If I remember correctly, somewhere on this site Shamus already wrote about difference between drama-first and details-first approaches and how writer can’t switch between two in the middle of the story. And, I think, everybody agree, that one type is neither worse nor has more tropes, than the other.
      Only thing I have to add to conclude, that I think, full drama-first storytelling is more suited for relatively short, self-contained stories within established and well-known settings.

    2. Asdasd says:

      That was a very interesting article, thanks for linking it.

  30. PPX14 says:

    This is very interesting – the “therefore vs and then” is one of those things I knew subconsciously on some level in terms of story structure at least, if not world-building, and this articulates it nicely.

    I managed to guess several of the links this time :D Fellowship otR is a masterpiece of an introduction. Especially as the book itself dragged greatly for the first 40-100 pages. I wonder if there is any similarity in its structure to The Good the Bad the Ugly – possibly the only film I’d ‘rank’ even higher than FotR.

    This morning I was thinking I’m sure that is the case in how the Sequel Trilogy felt to me. A lot of things happening a propos of nothing. Or at least as the Mr Plinkett review pointed out the ‘therefore’s rely on character foolishness.

  31. Zekiel says:

    Hooray! I love Shamus detailing why he likes something even more than I love him complaining.

    This made me think about why I enjoyed Pillars of Eternity so much. I understand the criticisms that the worldbuilding isn’t presented in the greatest way, but the backstory itself is brilliant. Its not Standard Fantasy Europe. Instead we have Fantasy America, which the Fantasy European analogues colonised hundreds of years ago, predictably leading to conflict with the natives. And not just one war either, two distinct wars, with different (believable) triggers. Plus the Colonists declaring independence from their forebear nation. And a really interesting war in the recent past. And all of these bits of history affect the companions, and the factions you interact with.

    1. BlueHorus says:

      Interesting. I never got that much of a sense that the world was that coherent. I loved Pillars because it came up with a central theme – finding meaning in a complicated, fundamentally meaningless world – and stuck with it.
      The sidequests, the companion characters, it all stuck to that main issue, constantly re-examining it.

      Obsidian did a good job of not making the different nations / countries contradict each other, but to me it always seemed like a fairly standard grab-bag of your basic fantasy tropes (unsurprising, givn the way the game was Kickstarted).
      Sure, they put a new spin on their dwarves, elves and halflings…but they’re still dwarves, elves and halflings at the end of the day.

      1. Zekiel says:

        Oh absolutely. I could happily have done with them cutting dwarves and elves; humans, Orlan and aumaua (?) would have been great. I think the fantasy world is refreshing because it has character but doesn’t fall into the old fantasy-Europe schtick.

        But I’m probably overly generous to it… I don’t think it’s as clever as Mass Effect 1’s.

    2. Trystan de Lyonesse says:

      I keep seeing that argument about “boring Standard Fantasy Europe” on and on. So I have a question, did we actually have that many game settings in it in last 15 years? And more important, what games, except Witcher series, and maybe to some extent DA:Origins have done “Standard Fantasy Europe” right? By right, I mean something more elaborate than “It’s a castle, there’s a knights and here’s some magic, now go and kill something”.

  32. Mike P. says:

    Late to the party here, but as someone who really enjoys coherent worldbuilding, I should suggest you play some of the “Trails” (meta)series of JRPGs; Unlike many games these days, they actually use the same setting, history, and sometimes characters not only across multiple games but across multiple…sub-series? Their writing is pretty much their strongest selling point. Characters. World. Plotting.

    Sure, they’re linear games and there are sometimes anime tropes. But so what? If you’re looking for games that take worldbuilding seriously, they’re top of the class.

    1. pseudonym says:

      Hey, seems your comment was posted, but not visible at the time when I posted. Thanks for the suggestion.
      What I like about good writing is that it allows to emerge myself in another world. Mass effect had that quality, but also the Harry Potter books for example. So any linearity is not really a problem for me. I will check it out. Thanks again!

      1. Mike P. says:

        For maximum story goodness, I recommend starting at the beginning, with Trails in the Sky FC (“First Chapter”); But if that feels too dated (which it does for some people, though I think it holds up pretty well) then the other logical entry point is Trails of Cold Steel 1. Both are available on Steam, and Skies will run on basically any PC that runs Windows, while… actually, honestly, so will Cold Steel at this point.

        Hope you enjoy!

  33. pseudonym says:

    The feeling when playing mass effect is so unforgettable. There was lore everywhere: in planet descriptions, party banter in the elevator, terminal entries, codex entries, planet descriptions, conversations. It had great replay value, even for completionists. There were always parts of the conversation tree left to discover, or party banter unheard as you can only take two party members etc.
    Nothing compares! A true sequel was never made.

  34. Lars says:

    Ther is another game with a 2000 years backstory: Kingdoms of Amalur – Reckoning. Before the game was created, Gathering of Developers (GoD) created the world with roughly 2000 years of history, hoping to make a lot of games in this world. Tough luck: It wasn’t presented very well with no rememberable characters. The game was fun for a while (and stretched out at the end), but soon to be forgotten as the credits rolled. GoD quitted and there weren’t any Kingdoms of Amalur games made since.

    1. Christopher says:

      Kingdoms of Amalur was a decent game, but it sure made me appreciate games like Dark Souls or Dragon’s Dogma that keeps all that history shit to the minimum. Amalur clearly wanted to show that work they put into the world, so every single character just kept presenting lore exposition.

      Mass Effect did it well, ’cause while they sat down and thought about the world, you can learn about most stuff fairly organically. If you just play through the story, what happened in the past informs everyone’s actions here so it all feels relevant. And it’s kept to a handful of events without even any names to keep track of outside of the races. It showed remarkable restraint for a talky trekky RPG – besides the whole Citadel section early on where it’s easy to get sidetracked listening to people tell you everything about the universe, Amalur-style.

  35. kdansky says:

    I always thought Mass Effect’s background story was good, but not as good as people make it out to be. And I stand by that.

    Because I don’t compare it to Rage, I compare it to The Commonwealth Saga. Or Mistborn. Or Old Man’s War.

    In case these titles don’t ring a bell: These are multi-volume book series by somewhat famous Sci-Fi/Fantasy authors. They are all easily at the same level of Mass Effect. It’s not that Mass Effect is bad. It’s about as good as a decent book. That’s of course heads and shoulders above 99% of games, but it’s not superb. It’s only good.

    I don’t think this kind of world-building deserves a special name, because this is just basic writing. After you know how grammar works, this is how you write any kind of fictional story.

  36. Timothy Coish says:

    It’s way too late to comment on this, so I won’t go much in depth, but it’s worth mentioning that the early part of Game of Thrones was exactly like this. All these forces in the world, great houses, personalities, militaries, supernatural forces. And you can see them shape the world like erosion slowly shapes the landscape. It just felt very real, and sort of like the conflict or at least the setup to the conflict was very real.

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