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If It Ain’t On The Page It Ain’t On The Page

There’s been a lot of foofaraw over the video game Mass Effect 3, lately. More accurately, about it’s multiple endings that aren’t all that multiple.

All of the endings are, to one extent or another, dark, which is fine. Happy endings are bullshit as far as I’m concerned. But the problem is that none of the endings make sense and they all invalidate the story and the choices you’ve made up to that point. It’s a pity because the rest of the game is so well done, cliches and all.

For some spoilers and well thought out reasons why this is a problem, look no further than Mr. Chuck Wendig, who wrote at length about it.

A few days ago Bioware, the company that developed the game announced that they were going to be releasing a new ending in the form of free downloadable content that would better explain the previous ending.

Think about that for a second. They’re not releasing a new ending, or even a new optional ending, they’re releasing a rebuttal to all the people who played the game and said, “That’s a stupid ending.” One of the things all writers run into at one point or another with their stories is people who say, “I don’t get it.” Yes, sometimes they’re idiots. Most times, though it’s because the writer didn’t do the job right. She left something out, or he didn’t explain a key piece. Or it’s shoddy writing. Lazy even.

The appropriate response to that is, “Well, fuck. Guess I’ll do better next time.” Or, depending on where you are with the story, like before it gets published, filmed, turned into the ending of a multi-million dollar video-game franchise, “Cool. Thanks. I can fix that.”

The wrong response to that is, “YOU ARE ALL STUPID LET ME ‘SPLAIN THIS SO YOU STOP BEING SO STUPID,” which is essentially what Bioware is doing here.

Explaining your story after the fact is a waste of time. You see this in critique groups constantly. Somebody writes something, people read it and don’t understand it. Then the author spends their time defending the piece by trying to explain it.

If something isn’t coming across it’s because it’s not there on the page. It’s not clear, or it’s referencing something from the beginning of the story that the reader forgot about, or it brought in something new that didn’t fit, or whatever.

Don’t whine about it. Fix it. Make it better.

What Bioware is talking about is just compounding the problem. It doesn’t do anything to fix the lazy writing, to solve the continuity problems.

More importantly, it does nothing to change the player’s experience.

A story is not an object. It changes in the telling, it exists outside of the constraints of its medium. It’s not a thing you can shelve or contain within the pages of a book. It’s an experience.

You get one shot at giving your audience that experience. Changing things after the fact does not improve it. It might affect other people’s experiences, ones who haven’t seen the original, but you’ve blown your chance to do it for your core audience, your real fans.

When you write something that isn’t working for your audience take this as a lesson. Don’t defend it. Don’t rail against your critics. Fix it if you can. Accept it with grace if you can’t.

And most of all, do it better next time.

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