Deus Ex Machina: Well that was convenient


Have you ever read a book, watched a show/movie or played a game (ahem…Mass Effect 3) and were hit something really weird at the end? Like something that doesn’t fit? Something that’s way too convenient; a strange, out-of-place person, character or circumstance that wraps the conflict up in one confusing swoop? Congratulations, you may have just come across a deus ex machina, one of the cheapest literary devices this side of the cliché.

I think defines it best:

A Deus ex Machina is an outside force that solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in an extremely unlikely (and, usually, anticlimactic) way. If the secret documents are in Russian, one of the spies suddenly reveals that they learned the language. If the writers have just lost funding, a millionaire suddenly arrives, announces an interest in their movie, and offers all the finances they need to make it. If The Hero is dangling at the edge of a cliff with a villain stepping on his fingers, a flying robot suddenly appears to save him.

The term is Latin for god out of the machine and has its origins in ancient Greek theater. It refers to situations in which a crane (machine) was used to lower actors or statues playing a god or gods (deus) onto the stage to set things right, often near the end of the play. It has since come to be used as a general term for any event in which a seemingly fatal plot twist is resolved by an event never foreshadowed or set up.

Based on all the online vitriol surrounding the Mass Effect 3 ending, you’d think this was the first time gamers have come across this lazy storytelling tactic. But it’s everywhere:

From books: Tolkien wasn’t above it. Didn’t you think it was odd how many times giant talking eagles came to the rescue?

To TV shows: Every other episode of Doctor Who seems to have one:

“Oh no Doctor, earth is doomed.”

“No it’s not! I’ve got a supersonic earth-saving wiggly wobbleator!”

Movies: Watch any pre-Daniel Craig Bond film. Amazing how Q always gives Bond the exact gadget he needs to get out of a very specific situation later on. It’s never a general-use spy gadget. It’s a pocket snorkel that lets him breathe under water for five minutes, which is the precise amount of time he’ll be stuck in a shark tank later on.

And of course games: *UNCHARTED 3 SPOILER WARNING* Toward the end of Uncharted 3, Nathan Drake picks up a portable rocket launcher that looks like some kind of weird prototype. Minutes later this launcher miraculously fires two rockets under water, which result in the large-scale destruction of the massive underground facility the bad guys are occupying. Also, it saves Sully and closes the door on the mysterious container they were hauling out of the water. Convenient!

Look for it and you’ll find it everywhere. It’s annoying, aggravating and often completely unsatisfying. And yet, it does work in some places. If the story is funny, cool, or quirky enough, sometimes you can overlook it. It’s a gamble for the writer to take—you have to trust that the majority of your audience will swallow your silly twist. Shows like Futurama and 24 are both littered with deus ex machina’s. The former makes up for it with absurdist humor while the latter (mostly) makes up for it with Jack Bauer’s general badassery. Yes it’s incredibly stupid that Angelina Jolie’s character saves the dude in Wanted with one impossible bullet when he’s surrounded by gunned-up bad guys in a perfect circle. Stupid, but kind of awesome, and it fits with the rest of the absurd, fourth-wall-breaking vibe of the film, so it gets a pass. 

I was disappointed with Mass Effect 3’s ending just like everyone else, but to me, it wasn’t a petition-worthy offense. Maybe it’s because I write for a living, or because I consume a lot of stories, or because I knew it was coming, but the ending didn’t rile me up. I shook my head, uttered a long sigh, and then started a new game. They went for a silly slightly-literal deus ex machina, a god out of the machine. The Matrix trilogy tried the same thing, but it was worse there. Then again the Matrix trilogy took a turn south long before the ending. At least Mass Effect 3 is a fantastic game all the way up to those last 10 minutes.

Anyway, this wasn’t meant to be another blog about Mass Effect 3, the internet has enough of those. Just thought I’d highlight the narrative device they used, for those that don’t know. It’s actually in more places than you might think.

I think, most of the time when it appears in games, it’s through a cinematic or through level design (“Look at that, someone left a mounted turret near this enemy encampment”). Throwing in a gameplay-specific deus ex machina would be difficult, because it could require a new mechanic or extra development. Game developers are economical. Why create something the player only gets to use once?

That’s not to say it’s never been done. There are games that feature single-use items or mechanics that completely shift the tide of the battle or story. At the end of InFamous 2, Cole can pretty much fly. Would have been convenient to have that power earlier on.

Now, the fun part! Movies and shows are easy. What other games can you think of that had a deus ex machina?