Narrative Failure: The Most Common Error Message in Video Games
There was a time when a video game didn't need a story longer than a sentence. Shoot the space rocks. Save the princess. Kill the monsters. Beat the other player. Some games didn't even bother with the pretense of narrative. The original Mario Bros. arcade cabinet was just a gladiatorial arena where two brothers fought to the death in a menagerie of exotic monsters to win coins and the adulation of the players. In those early halcyon days, it didn't really matter. What few video game reviews there were wasted little time on what the story was behind all the punching, shooting and driving, and focused instead on the gameplay mechanics, listing them like features on a fun machine. As long as the game worked and was fun to play, it didn't matter if your story sounded like it was written by a five year old with a crayon. Controlling characters and exploring worlds made up of pixels using only your thumbs was and continues to be an immense amount of fun, regardless of your chosen game's literary merits, or lack thereof. A large number of people continue to buy the new Call of Duty every year without ever once touching the story campaign, and will likely skip all of Kevin Spacey's mo-capped speeches in the latest to get back to shooting strangers on the internet. But games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango, and their subsequent HD remakes, also prove that people will tolerate a terrible and frustrating control scheme (click everywhere until something happens) if you tell them a good story. Other games, like Half-Life and later BioShock, showed how good writing could elevate the first-person shooter, a genre often derided as the most mindless and cliché, into the realm of art discussed by professors at prestigious universities and in the pages of Pulitzer-winning publications like The New York Times.
We've talked about video game stories on LitReactor before. John Jarzemsky discussed the medium's tropes and devices, and I myself analyzed the role story plays in some of our favorite games. Since disappointing video game stories are once again a trending topic, let's examine some of the more common storytelling flaws that continue to plague our interactive electronic entertainments. I'll be discussing Destiny, Watch Dogs, Mass Effect 3, Assassin's Creed 3, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, so if you want to avoid SPOILERS, here's where you get off.
People will play a terrible game with a good story, and a good game with a terrible story. When you have a good game telling a good story, that's when critics start throwing around words like "art." It's great that more people are having more intelligent conversations about games, but legitimacy is a double-edged sword. Just like movies, music and books before them, criticism of games is starting to make distinctions between serious works and those meant merely to entertain. Both Saints Row and the Grand Theft Auto series are about stealing cars and blowing things up in a virtual city, but you don't see as many essays and articles dissecting the cutting satire and ethical ambiguities of the former. Now games are being analyzed by minds interested in more than gun stats and killstreaks, which reveals not just the medium's successes, but also a game's flaws as an artistic endeavor, no matter how competently-made a toy it may be.
As the reviews for next-gen underwhelmers Destiny and Watch Dogs have shown, players have started to hope from more from their games than really excellent destruction physics. I haven't played either of those titles, but I have been closely following the public conversations about them in magazines and blogs as well as on Twitter and Tumblr, and it's interesting to see that even people who are enjoying these games still bemoan the absence of any meaningful story. In the past, such a shortcoming would have been quickly dismissed—the story's lame, but whatever, the shooting is awesome. Yet today, despite their staggering sales figures, the discussion of these games is largely one about disappointment and wasted potential. Destiny in particular has challenged reviewers to find many different ways to say "technically stunning, but narratively stunted." Some of this is no doubt the fault of overambitious marketing, which sold players a next-gen online experience where they got to build their own neverending story, and delivered a derivative, formulaic MMO with better graphics, the industry's ultimate cliché. While Destiny is unequivocally a marvel of modern software engineering, the story was so boring that players elected to spend hours shooting into a cave rather than replay the repetitive quests full of unremarkable characters spitting tired dialogue. Maybe it wouldn't be so disappointing if it wasn't painfully clear games are capable of so much more. It wasn't that long ago we saw BioShock: Infinite, which spun such an enthralling narrative that some players (myself included) actually complained that all that pesky combat was getting in the way of the story.
Perhaps we've been spoiled by all the technological progress, but unlike the graphics and mechanics, it seems storytelling in games hasn't evolved significantly since the last generation of consoles, when studios started stapling RPG systems onto every genre. That's not to say there aren't games that tell amazing stories in innovative new ways, but they tend to be a single revolutionary title or series, as opposed to ushering in a new standard of quality that others strive to achieve. Whatever the PR people might tell us at every E3, developers still treat good writing as an optional bonus feature rather than an integral part of their creation. That's why they continue to make rookie mistakes, the kind of sloppy stuff that would get cut in the first round of any college workshop. Assassin's Creed 3 suffered serious pacing problems because the developers insisted on including a six-chapter prologue in a twelve-chapter story in order to prop up a sad attempt at a plot twist that could have had no less impact if it was cut entirely. If I had ever handed such a jumbled mess to my circle of trusted beta readers, I know my peers would have immediately hacked that unnecessary appendage off in a gush of red ink, no matter how much I begged to explain how it totally made sense. Mass Effect 3 famously flubbed its ending so hard that their most dedicated fans demanded refunds even though the game was technically superior to its predecessors.
Putting aside the fact that BioWare was unable to deliver the interactive choice-driven narrative it had promised, that ending still would have failed as the conclusion to a completely linear adventure in which the player makes no decisions other than what gun to use. Not only is introducing a new god-like character at the end of the final act to explain the entire story a bad idea, it's pretty high on the list of worst ideas in the history of fiction because bad writers do it so often. More recently, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel purported to be the origin story of fan favorite villain Handsome Jack, but told a tale devoid of any character development. Jack's fall from grace is more of a stumble: he's already an egomaniacal sociopath when the player meets him, who never struggles with the questionable morality of his actions, was already building a giant death ray in the sky, and apparently just needed to kill a few people to realize murder is his true passion. None of these games were truly broken in any way, yet reviewers and players continued to mention the story as a serious drawback rather than a minor shortcoming. Ironically enough, it's the mechanically derivative Shadow of Mordor with its infinite cast of procedurally-generated characters that has critics speculating about the next generation of storytelling. It's still a Lord of the Rings story about killing orcs, but that game fascinates me because it's essentially a tech demo for a storytelling engine, which sounds like something out of a Jeff Noon novel.
I had fun playing those games, except maybe Assassin's Creed, but I kept wondering how such basic narrative mistakes kept making it all the way to the final product. They wouldn't release a game where the guns didn't shoot, so why would they release an unfinished story? When I started researching this article, I figured it was because video game stories were mostly made by people who know code, not literature. The few job listings I could find for video game writers were basically looking for programmers who wouldn't mind writing on the side. But then I looked up the credited writers for the aforementioned narrative failures and almost all of them have degrees and careers in creative writing fields beyond video games. That leaves us with two unpleasant possibilities. Either they are all terrible writers who thought these were good ideas, or they did point out these flaws and narrative concerns were ignored in order to make a launch date, or possibly sell more DLC. In any case, it's clear that telling a good story is still not a priority for developers, but the players are starting to say that maybe it should be. While we're probably still far from the day a bad storyline can hurt the sales of a $500 million blockbuster shooter, it still gives me hope that at least in a few remote corners of the internet, the discussion of games is maturing. Perhaps that means the medium can do the same, and some day the stories in our favorite video games will be debugged just as thoroughly as the code.
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