Orson Scott Card – Children of the Mind

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‘Children’ is an appropriate word in the title. As for the ‘Mind’, not so much. Card’s finishes his quadrilogy – which started with two classics – on a ridiculous low. It’s not that the novel is bad, but that the flaws are brand new. Card succumbs to all the flaws he avoided when he first started.

Why did the two books split up? Considering how much Card had to say in Speaker for the Dead, it makes sense. His intelligence and complex philosophy still shines through. Instead of shining through storytelling, it’s one essay after another. Sometimes it’s inside the characters’ heads. Sometimes they ruminate and we get the whole thing, uncensored and unabridged. If this was part of a style, fine. It’s not. Rather, it’s a collection of notes – events, ruminations, extended dialogues that all should’ve been trimmed down.

The quadrilogy has philosophical weight, but in the end these novels aren’t pure philosophy. There is an engaging story beneath them about saving the world and what it means to be human. The constant ruminations are like a decent guitar solo extended for 10 minutes. One or two profound phrase is okay since it helps us focus on the themes. When there are whole paragraphs where nothing happens, that’s when you know the editors were dead.

If Card is so against destroying other species, why are the editors extinct? This is a flaw I encounter a lot when reading works by unpublished writers. They’re confused, not sure entirely what their story is about and afraid the audience won’t get them. The fear is justified considering how everyone loved Fight Club for the wrong reasons. So they fill their stories with character thoughts and speculations.

When I get these stories fresh from the oven, I don’t mind. Nobody has gone over them to trim the unnecessary stuff and what should remain as notes. A story doesn’t come fully formed from our minds. We must write it down, see how it looks like on paper and then play around with the pieces. You don’t really know how your story works until you actually write it down. If I read a story where half of it is notes the author should’ve kept to himself, that’s fine. They needed to write this to get the information out of their heads, to acknowledge it exists.

When I read a story filled with notes by a published author, I get angry. Card doesn’t show ideas. He doesn’t even let characters’ personalities filter them. Philosophies are the main characters now. The novel is filled with philosophical conversations and ruminations, and it’s all so disconnected from the story.

Philosophical essays contain ideas, but fiction is how we imagine them taking from. We need literature because that’s how we imagine the effect philosophies have on our live. I can write an essay about how everyone should have assisted suicide easily available for them, but through fiction I can imagine how such an idea might impact society.

The danger of piling philosophical conversations and ruminations in your novel is this. If they overpower the story, they lose connection. We no longer see the ideas in action, so we no longer see the importance. A good story doesn’t just give me insight into an idea, but makes me care about it. By having an emotionally engaging or thrilling story, I get emotionally invested and see the importance of the idea.

The philosophical conversations have no element of humanity in them. They rarely inform us about the characters or their big worldviews. Watching them is like watching a discussion on CMV-Reddit. You see the ideas isolated from a person dissected, analyzed and evolved. That’s fascinating, but that’s not a story. Moreover, CMV has an abundance of people. This novel written by one person. It’s really one long monologue in disguise, which is a shame. A monologue by a person – especially a talented writer like Card – could’ve been fascinating.

Children of the Mind isn’t an unrestrained novel. It’s a novel without purpose that jumps from topic to topic but in the end goes anywhere. We shouldn’t kill other people. We should try to understand people. Haven’t we heard this all before? Wasn’t it more convincing when characters were either morally grey, or when we saw the weight of heroism? The absence of Ender makes his character duller. Without him to show us the weight of his virtues, everyone just opens up a fanclub.

Everyone also acts like douchebags towards each other. Suddenly 21st-century internet lingo caught on and characters swear. Dirty words don’t offend me, but their sudden appearance is odd. Even more similar to stereotypical internet talk is how many dialogues go. So much belittling, being sarcastic and condescending you have to wonder why these people are doing with each other. Nothing actually happened between this novel and Xenocide, so when did everyone started swaggering like Tarantino?

The basic idea behind the ending couldn’t have been better. It ties the novel directly to the first one, but it’s still anticlimatic. Besides that tie to the first novel, nothing actually happened in that ending. The conflict was solved, events happened but no conclusions reached. The people of Lusitania may feel better and may be able to expand their colony, but I’m in the same place.

Children of the Mind gets by only because it’s a part of the Ender Saga. There are interesting ideas, but Card is trying hard to push himself when he ran out of things to say. It even lacks the occasional outrageous moment of Xenocide. That novel was empty, but you could trim it to a decent novella. A kind editor should’ve told Card that he’s writing a story, not a hodge-podge collection of conversations with self, ruminations and the occasional encounter with aliens. At least the first two books are constructed well enough they stand on their own.

2 children out of 5 minds

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Orson Scott Card – Xenocide

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Don’t we all want to believe in the myth of the free artist? If only we break the chains of record labels and publishing companies! A truly great author doesn’t need a pest of an editor. Their glorious minds just spill diamonds on the page. Really, this is an attractive fantasy. It means we can just write whatever the hell comes to our heads and it might be brilliant. We don’t have to actively seek criticism and feedback, since that will soil our purity.

For every brilliant album like The Fragile, you get a book like Xenocide. Actually, Dr. Dre was invovled in “Even Deeper” so maybe even that album isn’t a product of a single, untamed genius. Human beings are flawd and social animals. Without feedback or criticism, our ideas don’t improve. Becoming intelligent is no different than working out. You have to practice. You have to up the ante and you have to try new things and hear the words people different than you.

Card is clearly intelligent or else he wouldn’t be able to write the two previous novels. They were vastly different in style and were self-contained. There was an overarching story but the books weren’t separated just so it would be easier to sell them. They had a beginning and an end, different prose styles and different structures. That’s all before you get into how Card explores his ideas, how he focuses on characters and refuses to demonize everyone. These things are here too, only Card has no one to restrain him.

Lack of an editor doesn’t mean Card’s good habits can flow freely. It means he sinks to the sin of overwriting, joining the ranks of authors like King and R. R. Martin. He rambles on for most of the books, talking to himself and writing down notes. There so many passages that fit more a stream-of-consciousness narrative but this clearly isn’t one. The narrator is omniscient and the stream of thoughts don’tm provide any psychological insight. It’s a reptition of things we already know.

He’s similar to R. R. Martin not just in the rambling style, but in how the rambling holds the book back. When ramblings aren’t poetic or insightful, all they do is fill up the page and cause build-up. Build-up isn’t a good thing. There’s no reason to tease the readers with ‘something will happen!’ when it’s possible to write interesting things that are happening right now.

Only in the last 100 pages things are actually happening. Until then, people mostly speculate. Although there are many characters, the speculations aren’t patricularly varied. People mostly think about what happened, what may happen and what are the odds of something happening. It’s an author not sure how to move his story, so he writes neutral, meaningless things.

It’s tempting to write these paragraphs. Looking at how many words you wrote brings a feelings of satisfaction, of having done a work. Lying bricks in an order doesn’t automatically lead to a house. Writing a lot of sentences doesn’t automatically lead to a story or an essay or insightful philosophical musings. Card’s prose is more nimble and easy to read than other ramblers, but making it more pleasant doesn’t make it any less of a ramble.

The worst sin Card commits is lacking any purpose to his story. What’s Xenocide about, in the end? What does it add to the world of Ender? We shouldn’t judge other people too hastily. People may seem immoral to us but perhaps their value system is vastly different and we need to find a bridge. There’s no progression of ideas here from the previous novels. For all of its philosophical musings, the novel is empty. The only thing that happens is that the characters confront a virus, discover faster-than-light travel and start to rise against Starways Congress. Does that sound like a story that needs 600 pages?

The novel was apparently meant to go hand-in-hand with Children of the Mind but they were split in two. Whenever a book needs to split up because it’s too long a red flag rises. That’s a sign the story doesn’t actually end in the book itself (Here, it hardly concludes) and that the author found themselves writing a little too much.

The usual strengths are here. Although Starways Congress are the first actual antagonist in the series, Card generally refuses to paint people as wholly evil or wholly good. Characters are conflicted. People do horrible stuff and later Card makes us understand them without justifying it. The idea of ‘varlese’ is pretty brilliant – accepting that sometimes we have to kill a different species because we fail to communicate but not because they’re evil. The novel never develops these. We don’t get anything like the piggies’ radical view of death.

There’s also more techno-babble this time around. Expect a lot of ramblings in the last 100 pages about Outspace and Inspace. It’s good he doesn’t pretend this is hard science and the philotes are more of a philosophical concept than a scientific one. But Card spends more time telling us how it works and none of it is barely cool enough for Stoner Rock lyrics. Again, it’s an author whose pen are getting away from them. No editor was here to cut off the fat and leave the substance.

Normally these are the worst flaws a book can commit. Offend the reader, but at least be interesting. Boredom cannot be forgiven. Boredom merely kills the reader’s time and no one lives forever. Yet Xenocide is, overall, a bearable book. It’s not very enjoyable, but it’s never offensively boring. The rambling prose fattens the novel, but it never becomes a struggle to read. When things do happen, they’re interesting.

That’s thanks to Card’s great foundation. He always comes off as a compassionate, wise person in his novels instead of a homophobic conservative. The world is still dominated by concepts and ideas, rather than trying to predict hard science. There is still no main character, but a wide cast. Some get more focus than others, but each is given a rational basis for their actions (Although Quara is a bit dramatic). Card never demonizes anyone.

Such tiny merits manage to make the book fairly pleasant, if not great. It’s a huge step-down from Speaker for the Dead and makes me wonder if this is where the series ran out of steam. Still, Card manages to ramble and focus too much about build-up and avoid writing a horrible book. That takes some skill. There’s nothing here unless you really loved the first books, but if youd did the ride may be pleasant. Hopefully the sequel is worth it.

2.5 xenocides out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Speaker for the Dead

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Scott Card still puzzles me. Here, he’s beyond the power of editors. The writing is more dense, with more inner monologues and more pointless words. Nothing about it is terrible, but it does reek of an inexperienced author who can’t edit himself.

Authors who can’t edit themselves will let their worldview seep into the novel. If they lack critical thinking. then expect all the Good Guys to hold their opinion and all the Bad Guys to disagree with them. The novel won’t raise questions or confront the difficulty of its subject matter. At best, it will give the illusion of realism using cheap techniques like ‘surprise deaths’.

Where’s the bigotry, though? I mean, Scott Card is a homophobe and very strictly religious. This only goes to show you how bizarre and full of contradiction the human mind are. Religion and homophobia are, justifiably, close-minded dogmatic ideas. They’re about limiting our options, and won’t be held by people who try to think deeply.

Card broke the stereotype on Ender’s Game, and here he continues. In fact, if you didn’t know his background you wouldn’t guess Card holds such views.

It’s ironic I’m judging Card like this, in a review of a novel where judgment is a big theme. The religious theme of forgiveness is here, and just like in the previous novel Card doesn’t take the easy way out. He’s always looking at a subject from both sides, always willing to accept both the good and the bad involved. The best moment is the actual ‘speaking’.

Evil doesn’t exist in the real world. Everyone is convinced they’re right. We need morality and to mark some actions as wrong, but we must be wary of branding people as just ‘sick assholes’ and be done with it. It’s important to understand why they do what they do. This way we won’t go down that path, and we will be able to prevent it.

Murder is considered one of the most horrible things you can do, and Card uses it cleverly to make us question what is evil. From the viewpoint of an organism that doesn’t really die when they’re killed, there’s no such thing as murder. So when they do the same to you, can you really brand them as evil? They sure they were doing you good, bringing you to your next life.

His desire to understand people, the idea that we should see people as people through their flaws reflects in the characters. They’re all flawed humans, doing what they think is best. Some of them are crueler than others, but each has a reason for what they do. Some Card clearly disagrees with, like the religious zealotry of Quim or the Bishop. They never slide into the unlikeable. They never become wrenches in the gears of the plot that the heroes have to get rid of. Like everyone else, they have a worldview of their own that they adjust as they learn new things. Card never converts them to their side, but lets them learn like people do.

It sounds fun and deep, but it never goes as deep as it should. The biggest challenge is to take a true scumbag, a person who disregarded everyone else and make them sympathetic. Not every cruel person is a tragic case and could be redeemed. Some people do use their power for pleasure while hurting others. Some people are so extreme in their views they cannot be changes. He confronted the reality of inevitable violence in Ender’s Game, but here he’s hesitant. The novel has a bigger plot, a wider scope and states its subject matter more clearly. Yet it doesn’t match what came before for depth. Despite the simple plot, Ender’s Game did go much further.

The story itself is great though. The writing is more dense and a little more rambling. The easy flow of Ender’s Game is gone and Card has no stylistic quirks, but it’s readable. It also helps Card tends to ramble on the novel’s focus, its characters. The prose is otherwise is easy to read. Plain utilitarianism has its place, especially when everything surrounding it is good enough.

For a very famous series, its structure is vastly different than stereotypical sci-fi. Science fiction is burdened with the stigma that it’s all technobabble, silly worldbuilding and too much exposition. I even talked to some people who think sci-fi is all about new technologies.

Speaker for the Dead is a character-driven novel where gadgets take a secondary place. The best sci-fi comes up with meaningful technologies or aliens. They don’t ask how a new technology can function, but how it will affect society. The effect of technology is more central. It doesn’t bore us with how space travel works, but we constantly see how the lack of aging affects relationships. How the big computer network functions doesn’t matter. What does is that it creates a new ‘currency’, a new way to hold power without weapons. The new biology is also a symbol of such ideas. The whole ‘third life’ thing creates a situation in which killing is different, where ‘symbiosis’ is taken to the next level. Card is more concerned how such a difference in biology breeds different cultures, how they clash rather than the plain mechanics of it.

It’s also a perfect example of how a sequel should be. Books in a series should be separated for a specific reason. When we say a sequel should ‘stand on its own’, we don’t mean that it should be accessible for those who didn’t read the predecessors. ‘Stands on its own’ means the sequel is a work with its own unique qualities. It has its own style, themes and structure that separates it. A sequel shouldn’t just show us what happens next but offer something new. Speaker is different in many ways – prose, structure, characters, atmosphere – than Ender’s Game, and all that justifies its existence.

The flaws are negligible. It doesn’t scale the heights of Ender’s Game because it’s not as willing to face the darkness and it rambles more. These prevent it from being a masterpiece, but it’s still a great sci-fi story. It’s a story of ideas and characters, using setting, technology and aliens to raise questions instead of spitting technobabble. Whatever views Card holds, his story is multi-layered and doesn’t preach dogma but encourages understanding the unfamiliar. Hopefully, the good stuff doesn’t stop here.

4 dysfunctional families out of 5

Divergence EVE

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Whoever was reponsible for the marketing of this series was on drugs. It’s as if two teams were given the same characters and told to run with it. The marketing team decided to give them swimsuits that only cover the nipples. The storytelling team decided to take the route of every good Sci-Fi story.

That’s a smart move. Divergence Eve wouldn’t work as ecchi. The breasts look oversized and pointy. They don’t look natural. Looking at them is interesting because you can have fun trying to figure out how they connect. It has none of the elegance of Freezing.

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Someone has described the series as “a good sci-fi story with breasts drawn on it” and it’s dead-on. The breasts don’t even affect the story. They’re just there, being too big but never attracting any attention. The camera rarely lingers on them. While the designs aren’t as good as Freezing, it also doesn’t sink into that fanservice. No panty shots or the like during serious scenes.

The story itself comes from the same scene that gave us Nine Inch Nails, the Matrix and Neon Genesis Evangelion. It’s technological paranoia all over again. Human experiments and space exploration are here to remind us the world is a frightening thing, and technology causes problems and not just solve it.

Space remains a weird territory that we can’t make sense of yet, so there’s room to explore this in fiction. What’s important is making sure your story is about how the characters go on about the whole exploration thing. It’s hard to invent new territories, even if they’re a meaningful symbol. Character interaction with the symbols is more important.

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The story is, thankfully, driven by the characters. Anyone who’s looking for explosions and machines banging against each other will be disappointed. The reason the show doesn’t stop to show you the breasts is because it cares more about who these characters are.

It’s a good approach, but the creators don’t know what to do it. There are moments of psychology that try to reveal something, but characters rarely become more than their basic shape. The girls never become more than their archetypes. Sure, Kiri is a tough girl but what else?

At least these archetypes feel like they have purpose. The actions make are consistent with it, and they’re dynamic enough. Suzanna’s arc is a highlight, taking her character to its logical conclusion. The series never pretends that these archetypes don’t exist, which is great. But It never shows an understanding of them.

EVE‘s main problem is that it has a sense of purpose, but no concrete purpose. No scene feels out of place. Nothing exists to kill time or to flaunt the big tits. Every character modifies the the scene its in. Even the techno-babble has purpose. It makes no sense, but the words are cool enough to create a sense of techno-paranoic-tension.

If the series had a theme to revolve around, it’d be able to lead its ship somewhere. The ending hints at grief and death, but they only appeared sporadically before. Human experimentation and moving civilization to new frontiers are also addressed, but they don’t do anything with them at the end.

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The series didn’t just borrow Evangelion‘s strengths, but its main flaw. The difference between the two is Evangelion‘s characters are outlandish enough to make their psychology apparent. They’re all exaggerated portraits, but they have more life in them. I appreciate the attempt to tone it down. Divergence Eve does come off as more realistic, but also with less life.

Two things that give the show some uniqueness is the fact it managed to make zombies actually scary. They’re not an important part of the plot. It’s another idea that’s addressed and abandoned but the brief moments are scary. The focus on characters helps makes the danger feel real. The focus is on the reaction, rather than gore.

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Divergence Eve also boasts a killer soundtrack. The OP is called “Nine Inch Nails” for a reason. Someone finally realized that orchestras have no room in outer space. The soundtrack’s buzzing riffs, hard drums and industrial sounds capture the feeling of being in unknown space, where the only natural things are hostile. Maybe if they took more than just Nine Inch Nails’ basic sound they could’ve written a story to match it.

It’s not a great show. It lacks a theme to connect everything and the story always feels like it lacks direction. It tries its best to get over it. There’s no bullshit and the focus on characters make the story engrossing enough. There are some powerful moments. The series’ heart is in its right place. It just didn’t have the right minds who could take it to the next level. Still, it’s a lot of fun, doesn’t insult your brains and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. If you’re into stories in space it’s worth a look.

3 necromancers out of 5

The Fallout Series

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To the west, you can see a natural light. For the first time in your life, you are looking at the outside world.

I was introduced to the Fallout series via Bethesda’s entry. If your exposure to RPG’s consist of their fantasy series and Dragon Age, you were probably a little shocked by the angry vitriol aimed at Fallout 3. The cries went beyond Bethesda’s changing the gameplay. The series wasn’t known for its fantastic turn-based combat that’s based on luck. Bethesda were criticized with ruining the original spirit of Fallout, and New Vegas was praised with reviving it.

Playing the original Fallout‘s failed to convince me Bethesda did a disservice to the series. It did the complete opposite. Although New Vegas had plenty of references to the old games, and a lot of characters made a comeback, Fallout 3 felt like an actual continuation of the series, at least continuing what begun in the first game. New Vegas continues Fallout 2 and how it turns the wasteland into a wacky, fantastical world. That wasn’t the heart of the series though. No amount of name-dropping things from previous entries will help you capture the old spirit.

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“The Unity will bring about the master race. Master! Master! One able to survive, or even thrive, in the wasteland. As long as there are differences, we will tear ourselves apart fighting each other. We need one race. Race! Race! One goal. Goal! Goal! One people . . . to move forward to our destiny. Destiny.”

The forums in RPGCodex define players as either storyfags or combatfags. I’m deep in the storyfag party. Combat in video games is mostly for easy fun, something to do while checking out the latest records and thinking how overrated the canon is. Perhaps one day I’ll see the beauty of a million algorithims that decide whether my character dies or becomes a banana octopus, but until then it’s the storytelling that’s much more exciting. Fallout didn’t have an interesting combat system either, but its strength was always in its storytelling.

In the first game, you are not born in the wasteland, unlike 2 or New Vegas. You emerge from the vault into a world that’s completely alien to you. It’s not just alien because it’s supposed to be the first Fallout experience. The wasteland reveals itself slowly. You do not immidiately hear about the booming center. You do not meet fantastic events in the beginning. The game begins with a small, unremarkable town. Later, the towns’ size increases, which turns your first encounter unique.

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The wasteland is neither depressive and gloomy nor a huge satire of humanity. It thrives on weirdness, but not weirdness for the sake of cheap amusement. The litany of absurd things – two-headed cows, an irradiated maniac with the name of an egyptian God and the various cults are here to show us the absurdity (and beauty) of still trying to make it through a wrecked world. It makes little sense to try to survive in the wasteland. Mutated animals, radiation, anarchy – the future doesn’t seem to exist, yet people are still trying to make it.

Fallout 3 continues in that vein. Worshipping an undetonated atomic bomb and people pretending to be superheroes makes perfect sense in the wasteland. It’s a place that will most likely break people down mentally, instead of keeping them normal. The gameplay and the actual fictional world are not the same thing. The gameplay always makes it easier to survive, but imagine if you were really there. The world that surrounds you is wrecked, most animals are distorted and you probably heard old tales of how bright the future could be. You might also be pretty lonely. Putting on a superhero suit makes sense in this setting. It will drive you crazy, and the suit might intimidate some people.

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New Vegas and Fallout 2 can’t keep this theme going. Fallout 2 actually starts fairly well, even if the tribes would have been more comfortable somewhere in Planescape (Unlike the cult in Megaton, Bright Brotherhood or the Unity Church, the tribes have little connection to the game’s themes). Broken Hills and Modoc are great places. The former is an experiment where the three races live together and the latter is a depressed, doomed community that the wasteland is bound to have hundreds of. Things start to get worse once you get to New Reno. The gang wars aren’t updated to fit the wasteland. This isn’t a case of taking an inspiration from something real and changing it to fit the wasteland. Instead, Black Isle lifted mafias with all their drama and visual style and just placed them in the wasteland. The bouncers wear fedoras. The families are powerful. The casinos are prospering. Later on, you’ll encounter a strange Chinese cult. Fallout 2 may be a frankenstein of sorts, consisting of parts from RPG’s buried in development hell.

New Vegas is slightly better, but it’s a western more than anything. Most of the people act like cowboys and ranchers. The whole look of the place relies on how we thing the wild west was. The Mojave is treated more as just a desert, instead of a wasteland. The general view of Fallout 3 is full of ruined buildings and dark skies. New Vegas has the great outdoors that are a common feature in country music. Again, we see here imagery lifted straight from an unrelated genre with little change to it. Obsidian did slightly more with the material they lifted up. This form of wild west does make sense in a post-apocalyptic world. Fallout‘s main source of inspiration, Mad Max, was a western in a post-apocalyptic setting. The people in the Mad Max films though were just as weird as those of the Fallout series, but they had their own culture and myth. New vegas’ culture is just a slightly altered western.

Fallout 2 and New Vegas are praised for their amount of choices, unlike Fallout 1&3. It’s a cool gameplay mechanic, but unless these choices are meaningful storywise, that’s all they end up. They become as meaningful as your choice between a shotgun or a submachine gun. Caesar’s Legion is a boring faction which consists of bad guys with no motive. At least the Enclave look like good guys as seen from their point of view. The NCR and Mr. House are much better, and represent ideas more complex than good and evil. New Vegas‘ plot doesn’t really develop these, though. There’s a point where you make your choice, and the main quest becomes a series of hoops to jump through in order to get to the big battle. At some point, the game stops delivering new informations about the factions. In Fallout 3, you keep learning about the wasteland throughout the various quests. It’s only the final one that is just one huge action scene. I won’t even start on Fallout 2. The terrible Scientology parody and the Chinese took me out, and I keep finding better games to play.

Video games are themselves all about choices. Something happens in a video game only if you choose to do it, even if it’s as dull as moving to the next level or keep hanging around this one. The choices mechanic in RPG’s is just an expansion of it. Good storytelling in video games doesn’t need choices, and choices only improve the storytelling if they help to develop more meaningful stories. The choices in Planescape: Torment are great not just because they add a bunch of different routes. These choices increase the number of meaningful and great stories that the game can tell, and that’s what increases the replay value. The choices in New Vegas don’t offer a particularly new story, and Fallout 2 is just a mess. It’s the first and the third just offer great stories, and if they have to be linear to do it then it’s a sacrifice worth making. They also both deal with the theme of race with more depth than most fiction, something I will elaborate on in a different post.

Pictures are taken from the Fallout Wiki