I'm back after slightly more than a month. My wife's bone marrow transplant is going extremely well, so I'm trying to get back into the swing of things here at the Friday Challenge. Despite the early appearance that this column is about video games, it's actually about writing.
Despite being an Old Goat, I've been known to pick up a video game controller if a game looks particularly interesting to me. As a pencil and paper role playing gamer of long standing, I find myself drawn to video game RPGs when I've got a controller in my hands. The last video RPG I settled down to play was a science fiction epic called Mass Effect. Yes, that game is several years old now. What makes it worse is that I didn't get around to starting on Mass Effect 2, which has been out for about a year and a half, until Saturday morning. (The Boy, of course, has long since played the game through to completion.) I'm not going to go into any descriptions of game play or the story line, so those of you uninterested in video games have nothing to fear. I am going to discuss a couple of scenes as a way of introducing my topic.
The first game ends with the main character, Shepherd, having saved the civilized galaxy. For most of that game, Shepherd and his team flew about the galaxy in a prototype starship called the Normandy. The second game begins with the destruction of the Normandy. Only a few scenes into the game, Shepherd is put in command of the new Normandy. It's this scene which suggested the topic of this column.
When Shepherd is shown to the new Normandy, the game music swells, the game camera pans around the ship, and the player is left with no doubt at all that this is supposed to an emotional scene. There's only one problem; it's not an emotional scene. There was no stirring in my breast, no faster beating heart, no goosebumps. I just wanted to scene to hurry up and end so the story could move. That started me thinking about why the scene failed to stir any emotion besides boredom.
First and foremost, I felt no emotional connection to the original Normandy. It was a neat ship and I certainly wouldn't mind having a little model of it to add my collection of desktop starships at work, but the ship was nothing more than a means of transportation within the game world to me. The reason for that is because the first Mass Effect game did not contain anything to make me think otherwise of the ship. The original game did a good job of building a bond with other characters in the story, but none of those characters acted toward the ship as if it was anything other than a big machine used to get from point A to point B. Since there was no emotion in my breast to stir, the swelling music and camera pans about the new Normandy merely took up game time.
Second, even if I had some emotional connection to the original Normandy, the replacement ship followed too closely on the heels of the loss of the original. There was no time to "mourn" the loss of a beloved ship. There had actually not even been a need to have a star ship available prior to the introduction of the new Normandy. At the very least, the hero needs to suffer some from the loss of the original before the replacement is made available. Yet in Mass Effect 2 the new Normandy was introduced just as the hero was about to head out on his first mission.
If you want an example of how to handle the loss of a thing properly, you need only look as far as Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. Obviously, by the time that movie was released, Star Trek fans had already developed a love of the U.S.S. Enterprise. That love was developed because of the devotion the characters had for the ship. It was common knowledge that Kirk was "married" to his ship. Scotty would get into fights if someone insulted his ship. It was obvious the Enterprise was more than just a means of transportation to the characters. That's why the destruction of the Enterprise in Star Trek III held an emotional impact for the viewers. Something they cared about was gone forever and it stirred emotions within them.
After losing the Enterprise, Kirk and company had to make do with a Klingon Bird of Prey for the rest of the movie and for all of the following movie. There was uncertainty as to how the Klingon ship would handle time travel and whether it could go fast enough to return to the 22nd century while also carrying a pair of whales. The crew suffered physically during both trips in time. In other words, they met the requirement to suffer as a result of the loss of the Enterprise. Finally, at the end of Star Trek IV, the crew rode in a space shuttle toward their new ship. A large, new ship loomed before them, leading the audience and the characters to believe this was the ship. Then the shuttle swept past the large ship and the new Enterprise came into view. Across two movies, the audience shared in the feeling of loss and rebirth for Enterprise.
Star Trek is hardly the only science fiction series to engender feelings for a starship. George Lucas found out just how much Star Wars fans loved the Millennium Falcon when he ran his first audience test for Return of the Jedi. In the original, Lando and the Falcon did not escape the destruction of the second Death Star and the test audience was not pleased. The response was so negative that the movie was changed so the Falcon just managed to get clear. While I'm sure viewers wanted Lando to survive, I'm sure they wanted the Falcon to survive even more. Joss Whedon did an even better job with the ship Serenity in the TV show Firefly and then in the movie Serenity.
The point of all of this is to help you avoid the mistake made in the video game. The lesson is that your readers (or viewers, or players) must have an emotional connection to the person or thing lost before the return of the person or item can have an emotional impact on them. That kind of connection takes time to develop. Then it takes time for the loss to sink in for the characters and audience. Only after the characters and audience have connected and suffered can they react emotionally to the return.
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