Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Order: 1886, Mass Effect and launching a new fictional universe

The Order: 1886 is a pretty lousy game, and here's my review if you'd like to know why I think so. But for as much as I tore into the game's story, I never really addressed its ending, if it can be called that. The Order, like so many new franchise hopefuls in the AAA market, is so confident in the eventual existence of a "part two" that it neglects to resolve virtually any of its many dangling plot threads, all under the assumption that they can be addressed in later entries. This didn't initially stick with me because I lost interest in the plot by that point anyway, but there's something I want to discuss here in regards to launching new franchises.

I'm about to delve into spoilers for The Order, so be warned. Though, honestly, if your expectations for the game's plot are high enough that you care that any of it's being spoiled, you'll probably be disappointed.

Here's the short version. The game's protagonist, Galahad, uncovers a conspiracy within his own organization to shuttle half-breeds (vampires and werewolves and such) across the world. One of their clients, who we'd assumed was a good guy, has been leading the charge, and the plot extends to trusted members of the order, including a buddy of Galahad's who turns out to be a werewolf himself. Galahad hunts the guy down and kills him, and... that's it. The screen literally cuts to black when the killing shot is fired.

Now, obviously, the writers were trying to end The Order's story on an emotional high point, with Galahad being tearfully forced to gun down one of his best friends. That doesn't work, of course, for the simple reason that the game's writing is dull, trite and undercooked. Galahad isn't a likable guy, and he makes countless questionable decisions for the extremely limited amount of time that the game fills. I didn't sympathize with him and I wasn't moved by this decision; the final scene fell completely flat for me.

But even putting that aside, The Order offers essentially no closure, with the consolation prize being that we took down one glorified henchman. The main villain is still out there and the conspiracy, as far as we know, is still in full bloom. We're not really given any indication of how much progress we've made in shutting down the sinister vampire-smuggling plot. Last we heard, Galahad's former colleagues thought he was a traitor for arbitrary reasons, and he never spoke up, because... I don't know, actually. By the end, most of the supporting characters have just unceremoniously disappeared from the story. They could be dead, for all we know. When the credits roll, we have no idea what state the world of The Order is even in.

Now, I'm a realist. I know that having a reliable audience can be necessary in funding AAA game development, and I know that building franchises is the best way to do that. I'm not opposed to franchises. Some of my favorite games of the last several generations are sequels (because it often takes more than one try to get the formula down). I know that most new IPs in this market are created with the expectation of jumpstarting an ongoing series, and as such, you need some narrative insurance, a guarantee that you'll be able to continue the story with subsequent entries. A narrative that leaves no doors open for sequels doesn't look attractive to AAA publishers. Fine. I get it.

But that doesn't excuse a new IP (particularly a $60 game that's only six hours long and marketed as the next bold step in theatricality) of having to provide a satisfying narrative that works as a whole. Holdover endings are never the right approach to take, even when the next chapter is a guarantee. Look at Halo 2. It's got one of the most maligned cliffhanger endings in the history of the medium. By that point, there was no question in anyone's minds that there would be a Halo 3, but it didn't matter, because sloppy storytelling is sloppy storytelling. Cut the plot short right in the thick of the action, and it feels more like an episode than a standalone product. A narrative arc needs to have a downward motion in order to be an arc.

Any writers in the video game medium (or anywhere else, for that matter) hoping to jumpstart the next big franchise could learn a valuable lesson from the original Mass Effect. The game established an enormous, unfathomably detailed universe that served as the basis for books, comics, and full-fledged sequels. Yet it also works perfectly as a standalone story.

A refresher on Mass Effect's plot, then. About two-thirds of the way through the game, we learn that a group of massive machines called the Reapers are coming to exterminate all intelligent life in the galaxy. We believe it because the civilizations of the galaxy are built upon the remains of the Protheans, an ancient race that was already wiped out in such a manner some 50,000 years ago. The Reapers chill in dark space and return to wipe the slate clean whenever intelligent life has advanced enough. They can only get here using an enormous mass relay called the Citadel (which we'd assumed was just a repurposed Prothean space station), and they've left behind one of their own, called Sovereign, to open the door. Sovereign has coerced a particularly power-hungry government agent named Saren into doing the legwork, gathering a synthetic army and invading the Citadel.

Shepard uncovers this plot and chases Saren into the Citadel while the fleet deals with Sovereign in the skies above. Shepard either kills Saren or convinces him to put a bullet through his own skull, and Sovereign is shot down after an exhaustive number of casualties. Crisis averted. The Reapers are still out there, of course, but considering that it took the combined forces of the galaxy just to bring one of them down, it's presumed that keeping them out of Citadel space is as good a deal as we're going to get. It's established that using the Citadel to beam in from dark space is pretty much their only way in; only at the end of Mass Effect 2 are we informed that the Reapers basically wind up saying, "Screw it, we're walking."

Now, obviously, Mass Effect inspired two sequels, and new threads were added. The Reapers had other agents in the galaxy and they were still intent on carrying out their plan and blah blah blah. But here's the thing: If there hadn't been two sequels, if the original Mass Effect was forever burdened with being a standalone story, it still would have felt complete. It ends satisfyingly. The villains are all dead - not just dealt with, but dead - and the threat has been suppressed for what we'd presumed to be an indefinite amount of time. While there were other aspects of the lore to be explored (like the genophage and the quarian/geth conflict), we'd have no trouble accepting this as a definitive conclusion.

And that's the question that the opening installment of a new franchise hopeful needs to ask itself: If, for whatever reason, a sequel is never greenlit, will this game nevertheless feel complete? Or will its driving threads just hang there, in permanent stasis, forever? Maybe an eventual The Order: 1887 will give this story some closure. Maybe it won't. Either way, the game we have doesn't stand on its own.