Mind the MacGuffin

Posted on: April 15th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

Mac·Guf·fin noun \mə-ˈgə-fən\ (coined by Alfred Hitchcock, circa 1939) – an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.

Attack of the Giant MacGuffin

By now, the disappointing conclusion to Mass Effect 3, the final (we assume) installment in Bioware’s popular space adventure/role playing series, has been discussed and dissected to death, then resurrected, then discussed and dissected some more (again, to death). We’ve heard and read everything from ingenuous fan theories, designed to attribute higher meaning to what was most likely the sad result of an eleventh hour all-nighter, to in depth analyses of its various failings, to impassioned pleas of “say it isn’t so” and “my Shepard wouldn’t do that.” With this much distance between us and the unfortunate event in question (oh, that moment when millions of fan-boys and fan-girls suddenly cried out), there isn’t much left to say about the ending itself. If I’m to avoid major spoilers (mostly for the sake of Arie, who has yet to play the damn thing), I oughtn’t really say anything at all.

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I’m not concerned with the final outcome, in fact, but rather with what I believe to have been its primary cause. The sloppy finale was merely the effect, I would argue, of this larger and more pervasive narrative fault. The Mass Effect series has been lumbering along with this burden on its shoulders since its second iteration, and utterly collapsed under its weight in the very first scene of the third game. I am talking, of course, about the Reapers, those damnable space lobsters bent on galactic annihilation. The problem, simply enough, is that the Reapers are too damn big, too damn threatening, and too damn powerful to serve their purpose properly. They are well-enough designed, mildly interesting from far away, and appropriately menacing (also from far away), but a full on Reaper invasion is really just too much for Mass Effect’s plot to handle without serious, generally negative, consequences. Ultimately, a simple rewrite of the game’s concluding moments couldn’t have done the trick. The whole plot had become compromised at its very core as soon as the decision was made to have the third game revolve around what is essentially an apocalypse-in-progress. In short, Bioware’s writers failed to properly mind their biggest MacGuffin. They allowed it to grow too big. They got it wet and fed it after midnight. And it wasn’t long before this MacGuffin, instead of driving the narrative forward, consumed it, bones and all.

How do MacGuffin’s Work, Anyway?

And yes, the Reapers are, and have always been, and will always be, a mere MacGuffin (eventually a MacGuffin-gone-wild). While it might appear at first glance that the whole series is about the Reapers, it really, really isn’t. In any case, it absolutely shouldn’t be. That’s the thing about a MacGuffin: it feels essential, but it’s only there to get the reader, viewer, or player engaged. A proper MacGuffin is often introduced early on, to provide the protagonist with at least some basic motivation to progress. Afterwards, it usually takes a backseat. It is often periodically referred to throughout the course of the story, and sometimes takes on a slightly (and I mean slightly) more prominent role towards the end. Good examples of MacGuffins include (in no particular order, and with no regard for medium): Smaug’s treasure (and Smaug himself) in the Hobbit, Marston’s family (and former gang mates) in Red Dead Redemption, the empty house in Gone Home, “the mother” in How I Met Your Mother, Bill in Kill Bill (at least for the first ninety percent of it), the Observatory in Assassin’s Creed IV, Rob in The Brave Little Toaster, Toby in Labyrinth, that glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction, the mummy in Bubba Hotep, Aku (and the quest to defeat him) in Samurai Jack, Sin in Final Fantasy X, the Fireflies and Ellie’s immunity in Last of Us, the Temple of Doom, Ark of the Covenant, Holy Grail, and Crystal Skull in the Indiana Jones movies…you get the idea.

You’ll notice that many of these things do seem central to the story, and are sometimes even worthy of top billing. You can’t have Kill Bill without Bill, after all. Most often, the MacGuffin is something “shiny,” something exciting or mysterious, something that the audience can really get behind: a powerful relic, an important hostage, a target of revenge. Often, but not always, the MacGuffin constitutes the protagonist’s goal, either final or initial. Some MacGuffins persist throughout a story, and some are replaced part of the way through with something else, usually something bigger. Whatever the case, a MacGuffin needs to feel important. And it actually is important, in a sense, but to the characters and not to the story itself. The device serves the very basic purpose of creating purpose. We wouldn’t care about Bill if Beatrix didn’t want to kill him. He’d just be some charming but murderous bastard who likes to philosophize while making sandwiches.

God in the Machine

In all of the above examples, the MacGuffin is not merely limited in scope, but is genre and character appropriate. If your character is a demigod, then perhaps he or she can tangle with the devil. Part of the problem is that Shepard is no demigod, but the Reapers are still essentially the devil. I understand the desire on the writers’ part to realize a Christ-figure in their many-faced protagonist. The name alone is a dead give away. A Christ figure does not need to have godlike powers, of course. And it does makes sense to face him or her off against the ultimate evil. Mass Effect, however, fails to provide the compelling and convincing secondary MacGuffin required to make this work. This secondary MacGuffin is usually the thing that needs to be acquired or accomplished in order to defeat the evil MacGuffin, and might come in the form of an elixir, a powerful weapon, or a realization of the all encompassing power of Friendship.

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An obvious secondary MacGuffin is only really necessary if you intend to have a very human “messiah” facing off against overwhelming odds. Harry Potter, who is Voldemort’s “equal” by the end of the series, theoretically should not need help from such a device (although variants of it do show up in the series). Superman doesn’t usually need it either. Heroes of this variety, heroes who are meant to literally face the Evil One in single combat, usually travel and train, turning themselves into the ultimate weapon. In the case of Beatrix Kiddo, for example, Hanzo Sword notwithstanding (I personally don’t think she actually needed it to accomplish her task),  Frodo, on the other hand, isn’t going to be able to take out Sauron on his own, no way, no how. He must therefore engage in what I shall term a “Quest for the Devil’s Weak Spot.” Taking the Ring to Mount Doom gives him a believable way to emerge as the Great Hero without having to fight on the front lines, a task for which he is woefully unequipped.

The Crucible is clearly supposed to be Shepard’s version of taking the Ring to Mordor, but, compared to the overwhelming power of the Reapers, and the universal scope of the conflict, it lacks luster and credibility. For one, Shepard doesn’t actually have all that much to do with it, at least not directly. I mean, he does his part and all. But so does, seemingly, half the galaxy. On top of that, it’s constantly stated that nobody in said galaxy (not even Javik, apparently) actually knows whether or not it will work, what exactly it is, or what the hell it might actually do in the first place on the off chance that it does work. For all they know, they’re just building a giant soft serve machine. At least that’s the distinct impression that the audience is left with. Frodo achieves his messianic destiny by accomplishing a difficult but very clear task. Said task is introduced relatively early in the arc, is undeniably his responsibility, and will definitely solve the problem if accomplished. A very simple but effective tension is therefore created: will he accomplish it or won’t he? Shepard’s efforts, on the other hand, often feel like he (and the writers) are scrambling at best, meandering at worst. What else are you supposed to do, after all? Space Sauron is coming, and the writers forgot to give him a believable weakness. Is it any wonder that they couldn’t give Shepard a believable victory?

Genre Confusion

In the case of Mass Effect, letting the MacGuffin grow to galactic proportions (without a hero of truly galactic proportions) and, worse yet, letting it jump directly into the primary action, doesn’t merely make a satisfying conclusion unlikely, but can actually hamper one’s enjoyment of the game at large (a game that is, otherwise, pretty damn good). It also makes the many of the events and intermediary goals of the game a bit difficult to swallow. The plot, which involves the usual scampering about in space, this time for the purpose of rallying the civilizations against the Reapers, feels even more contrived that the extended assemble-the-dream-team conceit of the second game. Why exactly do these civilizations need rallying? Aren’t the massive beasties that are ripping their planets to shreds reason enough to start cooperating? I’ve been very interested in the political intrigues and racial tensions of Mass Effect‘s universe, and was glad that the third game at least tried to deliver more of that. But it felt forced, and this, due to the all encompassing nature of the disaster at hand, was inevitable. No amount of finesse on the line level (and some of the line level writing is very good indeed) could amend this story level issue. If you’re going to do a last-stand, apocalypse game, do that. If you’re going to do talky science fiction, do that. The two genres are incredibly difficult to reconcile. While Galactic politics are still interesting when the Reaper invasion is merely imminent, it becomes really difficult to care when such an invasion is actively in progress.

While Mass Effect 3 delivers an undeniable emotional impact with a very distinct flavor, and while I would find this fascinating and even powerful if taken on its own, the understanding that the Reapers are literally grinding entire civilized planets into walking sausage meat while my Shepard goes clubbing, romancing, and, yeah, conducting some diplomacy here and there, really rather sours up the charm, mood, and, frankly, overall appeal of the series. There’s some serious dissonance there. What’s the point of getting immersed in a detailed world that’s in the process of being pulverized? Why get emotionally invested in a galaxy full of redshirts? Most importantly for this specific medium, why bother exploring and enjoying a fairly detailed, narrative heavy role playing game (a genre that’s basically designed for slow exploration) when you’re reminded, at every step, that a million civilians are dying horrible, space-lobster-induced deaths with every supposedly heroic breath your avatar takes. If you’re at all prone to becoming invested in a game’s narrative, the overbloated MacGuffin of ME3 actually shames you for every line of casual dialog Shepard exchanges with the crew or the citizens of the Citadel, for every side quest and activity, for every minute spent not saving as many innocent lives as you possibly can.

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It’s not that I have a problem with apocalyptic (which is different from post-apocalyptic, by the way) settings or the sense of urgency. It simply feels as though there is a genre mismatch happening, on several different levels. Both the narrative genre, and the ludological genre are being twisted to an unnecessary, unsustainable extent, to a point where both the narrative and the gameplay lose a fair amount of credibility. As a result, it doesn’t really feel like the Reapers are tearing the galaxy to pieces. It feels like the writers are. Mass Effect’s MacGuffin forces the player to feel guilty for playing a large, interactive role-playing game the way that it was designed to be played, and for enjoying a fascinating fictional world the way it should be enjoyed. The game itself is full of amazing, stand alone stories, but they all seem to wilt and cower in the presence of the overwhelming, and overbearing, space-elephant in the room.

While all that doom and gloom is, again, an interesting feeling to experience in a game, and the fact that it can be quite as intense as all that is certainly an artistic achievement (the game does accomplish the feat of making the sensitive player very conscious of “the brutal calculus of war”) , this all comes at the expense of Mass Effect’s initial promise, and, I feel, its heart: the deep, engaging, and charming science fiction universe that Bioware had worked so hard to build up is quite callously sacrificed to what was initially supposed to be just a thing, just a dumb thing, the sole purpose of which was to keep the plot chugging, to give the characters something to do while we learn about them and the world they inhabit.

The Reapers forcefully and brutishly take the focus away from what most people enjoy about this particular sub-genre of SF, you know, the interesting stuff: the character development, the world building, the sense of adventure, exploration, and discovery, the talky interstellar politics, and, of course, those classic SF themes and questions (what constitutes life and sentience, how far is it acceptable to go in the name of progress or public safety, and so on) all of which are much more engaging than “will everyone die or won’t they.”

To be clear, the problem isn’t that the Reapers are a bummer (which they are, but that in itself is fine). The problem is that, because of a MacGuffin the size and prominence of which is at odds with the story’s original scope, the setting and plot of Mass Effect 3 careen away from its intended genre, and thus away from the strengths of the series as a whole. On top of that, the Reapers are a bummer with no inherent value. They are just evil robots bent on destroying everything. They are the Borg. They are the Cybermen. They are the Daleks. Yawn. Cylons, on the other hand, they aren’t. The Cylons, at least in their most recent incarnation, are not a MacGuffin at all but are rather a significant, and complex group of antagonists. Unlike Battlestar’s “toasters,” however, the Reapers have no personality, no obvious agenda. They are simply death itself. The intermediaries they work through – Saren, the Geth, the Collectors, Cerberus (to an extent) – are way more interesting than they are, but appear relatively irrelevant once the real threat is out in the open. Why worry about the lackeys and middlemen when the genuine article has already stepped into the arena? In essence, the Reapers work perfectly well as a distant but immanent threat, to be prevented at all costs, and this makes the first two games in the series (the first more so than the second) work perfectly well by extension. As soon as they cross the galactic threshold, however, the Reapers become nothing but a tired trope gone horribly, horribly awry.

The reason why Doctor Who’s Daleks or Star Trek‘s Borg work (much of the time) is that they are just one of the nemeses and challenges that the good guys foil on a regular basis, and, perhaps more importantly, they are threatening without becoming manageably so. Victory at high cost, as well as temporary defeat, are acceptable genre tropes. An enemy so utterly powerful that it essentially requires a Deus Ex Machina to defeat is not, even if it’s an elaborately contrived and well telegraphed Deus Ex Machina.

Not Penny’s Boat

And now we get to the mythical ending. Here (at least in part) is why it…fell flat…on its face…into lava. The inappropriate scale of Mass Effect’s MacGuffin inevitably leads to what I call the Lost Syndrome (named after the once popular television program, but also quite appropriate for other, obvious reasons). The Lost Syndrome occurs when a rogue MacGuffin, or a series of MacGuffins, constricts the narrative possibilities so badly that the writers are forced to write nonsense in a vain attempt to free the story from the hole they’d managed to dig for it. This happens all the time, often to serialized narratives, and especially often to games. Sadly, it is just as often a result of great ambition as it is of laziness. Good (or adequate) writing goes bad, most likely towards the end, when the unromantic pressure to both release the product and to provide some manner of satisfactory conclusion bears down on the author’s brain with crushing intensity.

The finale was essentially doomed from the get go. The moment the writers decided to let the giant space lobsters out of their cage, likely in an earnest attempt to make the last game “matter,” or to “complete the arc,” or to make the experience more “epic,” the integrity of the structure was compromised.

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Appendix 1: What Have We Learned?

I suppose there should be a lesson, or a theory, in here somewhere. Let’s see here. What have we learned?

1. Make sure that your antagonist/crisis MacGuffins are of an appropriate size for your protagonist to tangle with believably. David and Goliath stories and messianic myths are fine, but the protagonist needs to have a compelling means of evening out the odds. Nobody wants to watch Mike Tyson fight a koala, unless said koala is carrying a crossbow and knows how to use it (even then, this is dubious). The MacGuffin is there to nudge the story, not to mandate it.

2. Make sure that your MacGuffin is of an appropriate scope, and of an appropriate nature, for the genre. In episodic (and Mass Effect is episodic in its quest structure) talky science fiction, it’s alright to have a lot at stake. It’s even alright to have the universe be at stake, but actually making the apocalypse happen on screen in the genre is a delicate proposition, and very difficult to do right. Battlestar Gallactica isn’t an example of this working. While it essentially starts with an apocalypse, the series itself is a blend between post-apocalyptic science fiction and talky science fiction. The fleet is always under threat, but is not constantly under attack.

3. While there’s nothing wrong with going big (an artist is free to do as they see fit), the bigger you go, the more you risk your MacGuffins slipping out of your control. Some of the best stories in the world don’t involve a protagonist singlehandedly saving the world from a great evil. Casablanca, for example, is about one man overcoming his personal jealousies and inequities to allow a better man, the actual hero, to escape the Nazis. Yes, there’s a great evil involved, but the real conflict of the plot is within Rick himself.

Appendix 2: A Few More Examples of MacGuffins That Work

The house in Gone Home, perhaps one of my favorite examples, is one large and uniquely interactive MacGuffin. If you’ve played the game, you’ll know that the inherent mystery of the mansion, along with its contents, drives the player’s/character’s exploration, but the game isn’t about the house, or even the fact that it’s empty on a dark and stormy night. Those things are there to grip us, to encourage us to investigate, but they aren’t in themselves “significant.” They function, in a sense, as vessels for the actual narrative to exist in.

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Another excellent example of a MacGuffin used to great effect, in this case satirically and quite consciously, comes up in the beginning(s) of The Stanley Parable, as the titular character suddenly realizes that he’s all alone in his office building. The situation itself is the first of several possible MacGuffins, and the narrator very consciously, in some cases forcefully, attempts to use it to steer the player along a specified path. The primary tension and the excitement of the game actually comes from playing with the idea of narrative guidance and character agency, and from actively testing the limits of the game’s reality. On one level, it’s about the main character engaged in a battle of wits with the storyteller. The MacGuffin is used, quite literally, as bait.

On the Triple-A front, after committing essentially the same sin as Mass Effect in Assassin’s Creed III (the sin of creating a MacGuffin that’s way too big and pervasive to resolve without resorting to some serious narrative voodoo), the writers at Ubisoft redeemed themselves in the fourth numbered iteration of the series (the one with all the pirates and stuff) with a MacGuffin that’s at once fascinating enough to capture the player’s imagination, distant enough to give the player room to explore at his or her leisure, and limited enough in scope to prevent the story (both modern day and historical) from spinning wildly out of control. While much of the story is predictably focused around a powerful ancient artifact/device, Edward Kenway starts off viewing said artifact as simply another treasure to acquire and profit from, albeit an especially valuable one. Because of this, his personal desires and philosophies take their rightful place at the center of the narrative. The fact that the artifact poses a danger not to human life as we know it but to freedom and privacy, ideals that Edward holds in high regard, serves to illuminate his developmental arc. It gives weight to his choices, and makes his transformations believable.