Writing the Right Way: Three Areas Where Bioware can Improve

Most every major developer in the world of video games has a skill sets their company apart. Want to play a polished game with years of development clearly invested: go Valve or Blizzard. Want a cooky sandbox-style game that plays with morality in a delightfully childish way: contact Peter Molyneux (whatever company he happens to be a part of). Feel like you’re in the mood to play an NFL simulator: well, too bad because EA Sports still holds exclusive rights so it is Madden or nothing. Everyone has strengths. With Bioware, the company has made its reputation on immersive, choice-driven stories. The company exploded into the public spotlight with Knights of the Old Republic, a Star Wars game that featured the greatest twist since Empire Strikes Back.

Since then Bioware has built worlds filled with entangling plots, diverse characters, and morality systems. Of course, the games themselves have evolved over time – and Bioware has made improvements accordingly. Real-time combat has replaced turn-based strategy and advanced animation allows for characters to express more personality. Storytelling is also able to be much more seamlessly integrated into the gameplay, although Bioware’s style has been to use non-playable cutscenes to attain a cinematic quality. How have the stories themselves been? Great! Stellar really across the board, give or take a few complaints. Yet as with any company, there is room for improvement. Here are three areas where Bioware can succeed at even higher levels:

1. Villains

For all the impressive companions that the Bioware writing staff develops, the villains… leave a little to be desired. Not to say that every enemy has been a bore by any stretch, Master Li (Jade Empire) and the Illusive Man (Mass Effect 2 & 3) are definite highlights. Yet for every interesting antagonist, there are two others that just do not work. Kai Leng, the Archdemon, and Corypheus are all prime examples of one-dimensional villains. The player understands that these people are evil because… there needed to be a villain in there somewhere? Motivation breathes relatability and frankly, a lot of Bioware villains just seem to be jerks. A good villain is hard to do well and there needs to be gray area to allow the player to see things from their perspective, even if they do not agree with it. In certain cases, Bioware has tried to give a villain dimension.

Kai Leng looks like he leapt right out of the pages of fanfiction.
Kai Leng looks like he leapt right out of the pages of fanfiction.

The greatest example is Teyrn Loghain, one of the main antagonists in Dragon Age: Origins. Early in the game, the player is trying to help the king win a battle against the darkspawn (the bad guy of the game). The player has to light a torch, signaling Loghain to come in and help with all his men. Here is what happens:

Apparently, Loghain had deemed the battle lost and blames it all on the player. Of course, he clearly did everything he could. Just look at him try and… what a dick. Yes, for all Bioware’s efforts – this attempt did not work. The only thing they succeeded in doing was creating an immense feeling of satisfaction when the player finally had the choice to kill Loghain. As you can imagine, many people chose to do so. Not that this is not an achievement, but given the depth of character writing Bioware exhibits, it is a shame to see so many cardboard cutouts when it comes to the bad guy.

Anders might be the best villain Bioware has ever created. He is certainly the most relatable in the sense that he is a good guy for most of the game.
Anders might be the best villain Bioware has ever created. He is certainly the most relatable in the sense that he is a good guy for most of the game.

2. Character Consequences

A lot of Bioware writing has creates consequences to be sure. The main one I am highlighting is best shown in Mass Effect 2. For those out there not in the know, the plot of Mass Effect 2 involves summoning a team of experts to take on a highly dangerous suicide mission. Seriously, this mission is super dangerous – like 99% chance of failure. No one really has any hope of… what, everyone lived? Oh, okay then.

People can die. Can, but don't have to.
People can die. Can, but don’t have to.

Perfection is not perfect. Saving everyone does not breed the best storyline, in fact it can create some real problems with a lot of leftover characters (just look at how they had to handle things in Mass Effect 3). Sure, having an achievement for surviving with everyone is nice but really – it’s dumb and it takes away from the realism and the intensity of the story. Make the player make choices that will get people killed. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs as they say.

Better example: imagine there was a way to play through Telltale’s The Walking Dead without anyone dying. How much less engaging and emotional of a story would that be?

There is no way to save Carley. That’s what makes it memorable.

3. More Mature Relationships

No, I don’t mean more sex. Bioware has come a long way with this but there is still almost a juvenile obsession with the player’s love life. It can be amusing and make for some great scenes but – with everything that is usually going on in these games, why do people really care? Also, why is it only the player character who ever enters into a relationship? Why not two party members? Yes, Mass Effect toyed with this concept a little but more could be done.

The kiss was the first climax in Bioware relationships.
The kiss was the first climax in Bioware relationships.

Also, the game places an unhealthy standard by claiming that the sex scene is the climax. As a player, you romance a party member, have sex with them and – that’s it. You’ve won, right? That’s totally how relationships work in real life. It reduces the problems and emotions involved. There are a lot of avenues here like having the player already begin the game in a relationship.

Bioware did this in Mass Effect 3 but it did not feel genuine. Even if the player’s love interest was on the ship, they stayed in their own area and did not really ever interact as a couple. This could have been more due to programming difficulty and time limitations more than anything else. Still, Bioware has pioneered a lot of relationship mechanics in games, it would be nice to see them take the next step in making it more believable, and less about getting laid. Not that there is no place for certain scenes like that:

Everday I'm Moustache-Twirling: the Red Skull in Captain America: the First Avenger

Moustache-Twirling: Verb – When villains stand around talking about how they’re villains.

A good villain can make a movie or show (Darth Vader, The Joker, King Joffrey). Likewise, a bad villain can drag one down. The Marvel cinematic universe has been, for the most part, fortunate with their villain cast. Obviously the highlight is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, while the low point would probably be whoever Christopher Eccleston was supposed to be playing in Thor: the Dark World (did anyone care about that character?). Then there is the Red Skull, the villain in Captain America: the First Avenger. On the one hand, he is played by Hugo Weaving (of the Matrix trilogy bad guy fame), who does an excellent job. On the other hand… he is a reaaaaallly boring character. Like reeeeeeaaaaaaaaaallllllly boring.

Hugo Weaving is a good actor and puts in a solid effort. The problems come from the script.
Hugo Weaving is a good actor and puts in a solid effort. The problems come from the script.

Why? People love Nazis as bad guys. Historically there is no better villain. Granted, the Red Skull leaves the Nazi party for Hydra but still – tom-A-to, tom-a-to. He doesn’t look dorky either, that makeup job is actually quite impressive. It would hard to imagine a more believable looking Red Skull in a live action movie. Certainly, there have been less realistic representations of the character:

No, the reason that the Red Skull isn’t interesting is because, in the vast majority of his scenes, he does nothing but stand around and talk about how evil he is. There are a couple of exceptions. One: his opening scene, arguably his best scene in the movie (and the scene that feels the most like part of an Indiana Jones film). In this sequence, the Red Skull starts the plot of the movie. He acquires the threat (the Tesseract) and kick-starts the plot. Now Captain America has a problem that needs solving. It is a good scene and important to the story.

One of the few scenes where the character isn't drawing huge amounts of attention to the fact that his face looks like a jack-o-lantern.
One of the few scenes where the character isn’t drawing huge amounts of attention to the fact that his face looks like a jack-o-lantern.

When we see him next, I believe it is the painting scene (I haven’t seen the film in a while so if something is out of order, I apologize). In this scene it is established that… he has a red face (SPOILER). Yeah, pretty much he talks to Dr. Zola (who’s not purely evilness makes him more interesting) and tells him that they are going to try and kill Dr. Stanley Tucci. Yes, I guess that information is technically relevant to the plot but it could have been conveyed to the audience in a much more interesting way. Everyone already knows (or can guess) what the Red Skull’s face looks like – hint: read his name! Not a great scene and ultimately it just feels like a distraction from the much-more-interesting sequences involving skinny Steve Rodgers at military training.
The next scene with the Red Skull is Hydra’s departure from the Nazi Party. Now this scene is really useless. For all intents and purposes, it changes nothing. There is never a follow-scene of Hydra fighting the Nazis or the Nazis temporarily allying with Captain America to take out the Red Skull. He was a bad guy at the start of the sequence, he is still a bad guy at the end. He simply goes a little more obscure (“yeah, I’m leading Hydra now. We’re an underground giant terrorist organization, you’ve probably never heard of us.”). If anything, it makes him more likeable because he kills Nazis. In cinema, killing Nazis rarely makes a character less likeable.

Fun fact: the Red Skull kills more Nazis than Captain America in this movie.
Fun fact: the Red Skull kills more Nazis than Captain America in this movie.

Fast-forward to the first meeting between Captain America and the Red Skull. Where the Red Skull takes off his fake face and reveals that… he is the Red Skull. WHO SAW THAT COMING?! They also fight for a bit but it’s nothing spectacular. Doesn’t take the Red Skull long to beat a hasty retreat in order to let the movie focus on its other, more interesting characters.
We then really don’t see the Red Skull much into the finale. There are a few short scenes with him, the largest being when he shoots one of his own men (this guy just keeps killing bad guys!), but these are all reactionary scenes to the actions of Captain America.
His last big sequence is, of course, the movie’s finale where he engages Captain America in battle. The fight is less than drilling, both in dialogue and execution. It… well it looks like something out of Inception in all honesty, a film that was released a year prior to this one. As for the dialogue… everything is general good vs. evil, black-and-white jargon. While it works for the film, this does not breed in-depth characters. Then, the Red Skull “dies” and the movie is over. Whew!

I went onto IMDB.com to try and find quotes to illustrate my point. I believe I did: look up all of the Red Skull’s selected quotes, they all have to do with Captain America. He really simply exists to give the movie a villain. This is in contrast to Loki, a character with his own arch that keeps him in near-constant conflict with our protagonists. One of these ways is a much better way to write a villain. They cannot exist only to receive the good guy’s punches.

On the same level as the majority of the Red Skull's dialogue.
On the same level as the majority of the Red Skull’s dialogue.

Disney's Worst Villain: Prince Hans (from Frozen)

Walt Disney Animation Studios has a rich history of feature film characters. From Winnie the Pooh to Stitch, many strong protagonists highlight this library. However, the scratched side of the coin is just as wonderful with villains like Jafar, Cruella De Vil and Scar. When it comes to villains: Disney delivers… well, almost always.

Princess and the Frog saw the addition of the most recent great Disney villain: the Shadow Man.

2013 saw the release of Frozen, the latest animated film from Disney, based this time off the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Snow QueenIt’s good, it’s very good. Building off the fun but predictable film, Tangled; Frozen delivers a unique story of sisterhood highlighted by magic and gorgeous animation. I’ve already sung “Let It Go” to myself more times than I would care to admit so the movie also has at least one song that’s really worth remembering.

Overall I can’t say I wouldn’t recommend Frozen to anyone seeking some animated fun, but I wish I could recommend the movie more. Frozen has a flaw, a big one. For most of the film it keeps it off screen, which is a good thing. Warning: minor plot spoilers to follow… for a Disney movie… do I really need to give plot disclaimers?

Anyway, Frozen follows two sisters: Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa has magical powers, the ability to freeze things and create snow. Anna is normal, without any magical powers whatsoever. Magic is fun but also dangerous so Elsa hides her powers. This plan works until both girls are of marrying age (at least I hope they are) and Elsa is getting crowned as the new queen. Needless to say things go wrong and the kingdom ends up a little… frozen. Get it? I’ll move on.

But that pun is besides the main point. At Elsa’s coronation, Anna meets a prince, Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) and they fall in love… well they decide to get married. Ah young love. Unlike every other Disney Princess movie in existence, Elsa vetoes the marriage:

This should have happened before 2013.
This should have happened before 2013.

And so the kingdom gets frozen and Anna goes off to find her sister to put things right. Along the way she meets Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Hans is left in charge of the kingdom. He does his best, even going so far as to foil the Duke, a comical satire of the usual Disney villain voiced by the always hilarious Alan Tudyk. Hans is set up as a good guy, clearly not Anna’s true love but a good guy nonetheless. In other words: it is an interesting character development, something more unique than the average animated film.

Then comes the turn, the big turn. Anna is injured and only a kiss from her true love can save her. Does Hans save her: no. Does he remain the good guy and just admit that he isn’t in love with her: nope. Hans reveals that he hates both Anna and her sister and will take this opportunity to kill both of them and take over the kingdom. He also mentions that if Anna had a dog or cat, he would run it over in his truck (okay he doesn’t say that but it would fit with his declaration of evil). If all that sounds out of left field, that’s only because it is.

This is the face of evil. Pure, unexplained, evil.
This is the face of evil. Pure, unexplained, evil.

There is no set up, literally nothing to suggest to the audience that Hans is a bad guy, nevermind a murderer. The turn is nothing short of awful. Frozen was a story about two sisters struggling to maintain a relationship while one struggles with magical powers and the other went on a journey of self-discovery in a frigid wonderland. That doesn’t sound like a story that needs a Prince Dirtbag to make it interesting.

Also: it’s Disney, their villains usually rock. And remember Fox and the Hound, proof that Disney didn’t use to shy away from telling a complex story without a needless villain. Sure the hunter is a dick to the Fox but… that’s kind of what hunters do.

The “reveal” of Prince Hans comes off as a cheat. A way to move the story to more expedited resolution instead of the natural ending it was heading for. One wonders what the morale of Prince Hans is for young women watching the film: remember girls, just because you meet a boy and he seems cute and fun – don’t get into a relationship because he probably just wants to kill you and your sister. That’s it: that is the only reason you shouldn’t rush into a relationship.

In a movie where one of the main characters can create snow from nothing, this should not be the most unrealistic scene.
In a movie where one of the main characters can create snow from nothing, this should not be the most unrealistic scene.

So while Frozen is still good, it never gets great. Before I saw this film, I heard it compared to Beauty and the Beast. Not even close. Beauty and the Beast has more than one song worth remembering… and, you know, a villain who isn’t the dumbest thing since George Lucas thought to explain the Force in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.