Video game storytelling has come a long way over the years. Most games just used to be variants on the "save the princess" trope. Now when you save the princess it turns out that the princess was inside you all along, but also you were the one that kidnapped her, but it's OK because she was the atomic bomb.
I could rattle off a list of modern games, like Farming Simulator 2013, that tell stories well. But a whole heck of a lot more games do storytelling wrong, and they all share weaknesses that need to be stamped out.
Games need an enemy the hero can kill hundreds of without coming across as horrifying. The most common solution is to make the enemies zombies, orcs, aliens, or some other fictional creature that's socially acceptable to massacre. If the enemies have to be human, they're usually soldiers that are Arab or Asian or one of those other inferior races that the West sometimes loses wars against.
When a story calls for the bad guys to be regular, civilian human beings -- e.g. American citizens, the kind you might run into at the bar if you weren't busy trying to shoot each other in the face -- that's when things fall apart.
"Let's go shoot some white people!"
Let's pick on Watch Dogs. Not just because it was a massive disappointment (although it was). It was hyped as one of the first next-gen blockbusters, yet it exemplifies countless flaws we've been begrudgingly tolerating for years. It's like that roommate who just isn't quite annoying enough to make it worth the hassle of disposing of his body and finding a new one.
In Watch Dogs, you're vigilante Aiden Pearce, who's fighting against crime and corruption in Chicago despite the fact that everyone in the city flips out at him if he has the audacity to stand within five feet. You're especially opposed to the futuristic Blume Corporation, which has unprecedented access to both the city's infrastructure and people's personal lives.
On multiple occasions you have to sneak onto Blume property. You can technically use stealth, but because there are 18 guards per square foot you usually end up killing them all instead. But you're not gunning down corrupt executives -- you're shooting blue-collar schmucks who are just trying to earn a paycheck. It's doubtful they know what their employers are up to. It's like trying to protest BP's environmental policies by blowing up the cashiers at gas stations.
"This will teach you to have a family in today's troubled economy!"
The game tries to keep you on the high road with a morality system that represents public opinion, but that just makes it even more laughable. Not only do Chicagoans give precisely jack fuck if you gun down a softball game's worth of security guards in broad daylight, but you have to murder an entire police station before they start getting judgmental. Hell, murder a few bystanders too if you want -- you'll get that reputation back by stopping a mugging. It's like how everyone forgave George Zimmerman after he helped out at a traffic accident.
So you and Aiden can kill a couple dozen guys before popping over to your nephew's birthday party, where you're portrayed as the cool uncle instead of someone who should be kept the fuck away from children. It's like he has a split personality -- one makes sense in the serious story, while the other only fits into the absurd world of games. That's why they can claim Aiden abhors crime, yet have most of your money come from hacking into strangers' bank accounts.
"Well, if I was a depressed shampooer I'd probably spend my spare income on alcohol, so I'm really doing him a favor!"
Watch Dogs ends by giving you the decision to kill or spare a bad guy. They play it as the game's climactic moral moment, as if you haven't spent the past 20 hours killing hundreds of far lesser criminals. It's like if The Expendables ended with everyone hugging it out. The only real moral dilemma is whether or not you were accidentally the bad guy all along.
The easiest way to hide a hero's sociopathic tendencies is to make the villain an even bigger sociopath. Even games where "hero" doesn't have to be put in quotations use this tactic, because writing nuanced villains is hard and making people hate an over-the-top monster is easy. We'll be too busy shooting and looting to bother looking at things from the bad guy's perspective. And developers bank on that, because the villain's plan in most games makes absolutely no goddamn ball-punching sense.
One of the greatest plot twists in video game history is a huge trick with no logic behind it. In BioShock, you learn that the friend who's been helping you is actually Frank Fontaine, a brutal gangster. He cooked up a phony identity as a family man to earn your sympathy but was actually using mind control to make you do his bidding. But if he could control your mind, why the elaborate fake story and dramatic reveal?
"I'm just a showman at heart."
Fontaine could have bragged about how evil he was from the start, and you still would have had to do everything he said. He had total control over you. Why cook up the fake-good-guy routine, aside from the fact that the game needed a shocking twist? Well, there's also the fact that Fontaine doesn't stand as a character on his own. His evil plan was to get rich and powerful by murdering an entire city. It makes no sense, because it doesn't have to.
Now, BioShock will rightfully go down as one of the greatest games ever made. I didn't notice that flaw until the second time I played it, because after the first time I was too busy reassembling the shattered pieces of my brain. But that doesn't change the fact that Fontaine's super-duper evilness was mostly there to distract from the fact that you spend 90 percent of the game beating the mentally ill to death with a wrench.
Start watching for this strategy in games, and you'll see it a lot. While the villains in Call of Duty: Ghosts are obviously evil because they're South American and you're a good old regular American, the fact that the game shows them executing civilians and blowing up cities handily distracts from the fact that you commit multiple war crimes by executing civilians and prisoners, as well as blow up an oil rig to create about 500 simultaneous Exxon Valdez disasters. It's the ultimate "America, Fuck Yeah!" moment, only with a complete lack of irony.
"Extra, extra! America to dolphins: Fuck you!"
And then there's Watch Dogs again because, no, I will never let that game off the hook. The main antagonist, a gangster who executes his own lackeys for mild incompetence (Boo! Hiss!), hosts a sex-trafficking-victim auction (holy shit, can you believe how evil he is?). You need to steal an invitation, and to do this you need to murder someone who has one.
Resorting to cold-blooded murder? This sounds like a tense plot point where Aiden grapples with just how far he'll go to complete his mission! Do the ends justify the means? Will -- oh, never mind, the guy you need to murder is a rich douchebag who's infamous for savagely torturing prostitutes. Moral dilemma solved! Thanks, Watch Dogs!
"But, on the upside, all that torture made your abs rock solid!"