6 Storytelling Problems Video Games Still Can't Fix
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!"
Inappropriately Mute Heroes
I'm going to express an unpopular opinion here, so let's just get it out of the way and move on. Gordon Freeman is a terrible character. Sure, the Half-Life games are great if you like tedious physics puzzles and outdated shooting mechanics, but Freeman is the Wonder Bread of video game heroes. It's not his fault -- someone ripped the poor guy's tongue out.
Making modern heroes mute is intended to create immersion. It's not some random dude hitting aliens with a crowbar and spouting witticisms -- you're reacting and commenting on the situation, even if what you're saying is only in your head. But this approach often doesn't work. If you're trying to tell a serious story with well-rounded characters and your protagonist doesn't understand the concept of a conversation it's going to come across as stupid, unless you're making the dramatic video game adaptation of Mr. Bean.
Also note that winking references to the problem don't actually solve it.
Imagine trying to get through life without communicating. No words, no writing, no hand gestures, nothing. People would probably stop hanging out with you, to say the least. But in video games you can be the most important person in the world, yet you'll find that no one wants to hear your thoughts or even finds it odd that their conversations with you are less interactive than the ones they have with their cat.
Take Dead Space. If you haven't played it, think Aliens: The Game. You play as Isaac Clarke, a walking science-fiction reference who's part of a small team investigating a distress call from a spaceship. You have reason to be worried -- your girlfriend is on board, some sort of disaster clearly occurred, and within minutes your colleagues get eviscerated by monsters.
Isaac's reaction to all of this is to do and say jack shit. And that immediately sucks all the horror out of the game. If Isaac isn't scared, why should you be? It's like he's thinking the same exact thing you are: "OK, I think the cutscene is over. Is this the shooting part now? Which one is the sprint button?"
"Ugh, Mondays. Am I right?"
I'm not asking for him to shit his pants and flee, which is what I and most of you would do. But he needs to do or say something to indicate that he's an actual human being with emotions I should care about, or else he's just a walking weapon in a game that's supposed to be making you afraid of death. Call me old-fashioned, but I'm pretty sure the first step in telling an effective story is having human characters that act like humans.
Dead Space 2 rectified this flaw, and games that aren't plot heavy can even benefit from it -- it would practically be sacrilege to have Mario or Link speak. But I bet you can all think of at least one game that made you wonder why the hero never complained about being asked to act as a bullet sponge while everyone else sat around and waited for him to save the day.
"Ramirez, point out how this trope, when used incorrectly, severely damages the narrative concept of suspension of disbelief!"
Lore Spiraling Out of Control
One of the great strengths of video games is that they can tell a story that unfolds over 20 hours instead of two. Unfortunately, many games don't take advantage of this, while others exploit it like people who try to get an entire meal out of grocery-store samples. Metal Gear Solid is the classic example -- you need CliffsNotes to understand each game's plot, and most of them assume you have some knowledge of their predecessors. It makes jumping into the middle of a plot-driven series like starting Game of Thrones in the middle of Season 2 and figuring out why every conversation is about characters who are no longer alive.
But the bigger problem is that more and more games are trying to deliver their stories through in-game databases. You've probably played a modern game that has a codex, archive, grimoire, or some other fancy term for what's basically a wiki. It combines all the fun of shooting monsters with the raw thrills of reading an encyclopedia.
"Hand me Volume 17. I need to find out why this guy is shooting fire at me."
When used correctly, a codex is a great way to flesh out a game's world. Mass Effect delivers all the important parts through dialogue and gameplay but offers a database of background info for hardcore fans who want to know the technical specs of their weapons or why having an entire race of hot, pansexual lady aliens has a sound scientific basis and isn't just a weird, masturbatory fantasy. Nerds can dig into the lore while most gamers can ignore it and be happy with the story.
But some developers just cram the entire plot into a database. That way they don't have to go through the effort of telling a coherent story, and gamers can engage in their favorite pastime: putting their controller down to squint at swathes of tiny text.
Dragon Age: Origins is guilty of this. It's a fantasy game about a group of warriors stopping the "Darkspawn," a name that should tell you how nuanced and subtle they are. It's full of so many cliches it should have been called Hacky Tolkien Derivative: Darker and Edgier Edition. But fans have told me that if I go and read pages and pages of background information the story is actually really interesting.
"Oh, so that's why they're evil. Wait, that's still terrible."
OK, great. But if I wanted to read a story I would have bought a goddamn book. There's a reason classic novels don't make you complete quick-time events before you can access the next chapter -- it plays against the strengths of the medium. But games are relying more and more on your willingness to stop playing the game in order to enjoy the game.
Destiny is the latest offender. The game boils down to "shoot aliens because Peter Dinklage told you to," which makes Halo look like Chaucer. You can't even access the "What the Hell Is Going On?" database from the game. You have to go to the official website and read the blurry backs of a bunch of virtual trading cards, which is a lot of hassle considering I just want to understand what the hell it is I'm shooting at. For those who haven't played the game, that sounds like a rejected premise from The Onion, but I assure you, it's quite real:
Don't worry, if this is somehow too inconvenient you can also download an app, where all great stories are told.
Padding the Missions Just to Make the Game Longer
Video game manufacturers like to brag about how many hours their video game takes to complete. But gameplay hours are like penis inches: size isn't everything, it's usually a lie anyway, and you can buy stuff on the Internet that claims to make it longer but tends to just leave you disappointed and regretful of your financial decisions.
"Wait a minute ... all these do is change the color of my outfit! This is BULLSHIT!"
So while developers are happy to tell you that their game is 20 hours long, has 50 missions, or will ruin three of your personal relationships in the time it takes you to complete it, they never say precisely what it is you'll spend your time doing. Destiny is advertised as a sprawling sci-fi adventure, but 90 percent of your "adventure" is spent protecting Titanium Lannister from brain-dead aliens. Fetch quests, backtracking, grinding -- gamers have an entire vocabulary for pointless, length-padding busy work.
Take Grand Theft Auto V's elaborate heist missions, which make you execute every single tedious preparation detail that a movie would gloss over in a stylish montage. Do we really need a separate mission to steal a getaway car, considering that stealing cars is already the literal name of the game? At one point you have to scout a seaport, which you accomplish by pretending to work there. For some reason this means you have to complete a finicky and tedious cargo container moving mini-game. Because that's why people bought GTA V -- to engage in the raw thrills of forklift operation.
"I'm glad they included this instead of another gunfight!" -no one
I could sit here naming games that engage in this kind of bullshit all day, but I was told to cut my list down to a couple of examples and get a life. Examples like BioShock, where half the game is little more than a series of errands. Or Mirror's Edge, where after you rescue your kidnapped sister she's immediately kidnapped again. When games do this you can actually feel your life being wasted. You begin to wonder why you aren't being productive, spending time with your loved ones, or actually performing a real-life heist, and who wants to confront those questions?
Then there's our old friend Watch Dogs. At one point you need to enlist a reclusive man for help. First you jump through hoops to track him down. Then you have to beat him in a drinking contest. Then he agrees to help, but only if you get his stolen truck back. Then you have to go hack something for him. Then he gets attacked and you have to defend him. Then he finally helps you, at which point you've forgotten why you needed him in the first place. Just like in real life, baby.
"I'm finding a different source for my weed next time."
Imagine if other media did this. Imagine if, after Bruce Wayne escapes from prison in The Dark Knight Rises, you watched him walk to the nearest town and do favors for a local so they'd drive him to the airport, where he personally fixes a problem with the plane. Then he drives back to Gotham City but stops at Home Depot so we can see him buy all the supplies he uses to make a giant flaming Bat Signal on the bridge. It would completely kill the pacing, and critics and fans would rightfully rip it to shreds. But in gaming, that's a perfectly valid storytelling tactic. It's a high school kid adding 300 adjectives and adverbs to his midterm paper in order to meet the word count.
Introducing Big Thematic Ideas, Then Ignoring Them
Let's harp on Watch Dogs some more, because Ubisoft is the vanguard of the video game apocalypse (which you'll be able to survive if you spend $14.99 on Apocalypse Armor DLC, available only through Uplay). When Watch Dogs was announced I was excited because it promised to touch on the topic of privacy. It's an important subject that's become even more pertinent after those nude pictures of Soren Bowie leaked. What would the most high-tech form of entertainment have to say about this modern problem?
"Well, I think he's really dreamy."
We'll have to wait to find out, because when I say Watch Dogs touched on the issue, I mean they put on a velvet glove and drew a single indifferent finger over it before sniffing in disdain and strolling away to cram more tits into Far Cry 4. Aiden learns that Blume is spying on everyone in Chicago, he hacks into their systems to save the day, and ... that's it. There's no debate as to whether he's being a hypocrite by using their tactics. There's no discussion about whether the pros of their otherwise useful product outweigh the cons. The game took the stage, demanded everyone's attention, and then twiddled its thumbs for 20 hours.
I'm picturing an executive that said, "Hey, privacy is a hot-button topic, let's make a game about it," passed the task off to developers, and took a three-hour lunch somewhere that does Margarita Mondays while forgetting that if you're going to make a game about an issue you need a stance, or at least a coherent thought.
"Hey, what's the deal with privacy, am I right? Anyway, I gotta go blow some more stuff up."
Ads played up that Watch Dogs is about a Really Important Subject, even though the game actually says nothing about it. Maybe they didn't want to take a stance and risk alienating some of their market, or maybe they're so boring and uninformed that they simply have no comment. I don't know which is more disappointing. Either way, why make an entire game that ostensibly revolves around hacking and privacy if you're not going to explore it beyond the occasional "clever" allusion to something topical? It would be like an anti-war game that's identical to Call of Duty, except occasionally someone shrugs and says, "Man, war sure is a bummer, huh?"
Speaking of Call of Duty, what's even worse is when a game doesn't realize how dumb its themes are. Ghosts opens with the country of South America (that's not a typo, it's a stupid game) hijacking an American super weapon and using it against America, which is Very Bad. The game ends with America hijacking South America's super weapon and using it against South America, which is Very Heroic.
"Ramirez, elaborate on Aeschylus' belief that truth is the first casualty of war!"
The message, intentional or not, is: "Only America is allowed to have city-annihilating death satellites -- other races can't be trusted with them." It's played completely straight and could only have been more jingoistic if the weapon was fired by a Budweiser-drinking, football-helmet-wearing bald eagle. But I have to wonder if at one point they were trying to say something other than "this franchise has become a sad parody of what it once was" before realizing that moral complexity is bad for sales.
You can read more from Mark, including his terrible life story, at his website.
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