Games right now are more diverse and interesting than they’ve ever been. However, there’s no escaping that certain parts of games have been stuck in a rut for a while now.
Let’s not mince words: the storytelling in games is usually atrocious. Most of the time the problem lies with the narrative design of the game—how the plot is laid out and the architecture of how the player experiences whatever story is being told. The structures for these games are composed of tropes and tactics that are just dull and often lazily implemented.
Here are a few tricks from the video game writer’s arsenal we could live without going forward.
EXPOSITION THROUGH INVENTORY
System Shock 2, and later Bioshock, brilliantly used collectable audio logs—essentially diary entries you could listen to when you found them scattered around the game world. How had SHODAN taken over the Van Braun? What killed Andrew Ryan’s utopian dream? These were questions that could only be answered by grabbing those logs, and what made that narrative device work is that both those settings were interesting enough that you wanted to seek out the collectibles to learn more about the world and the people who populated it.
It’s easy to see why audio logs and diary entries are so appealing to developers. Just look at it from their perspective: you’ve built a huge world filled with fascinating characters and thousands upon thousands of pages of lore for what’s probably going to end up being a ten hour game maybe. So much of that material just isn’t going to get used in the primary, barebones plot that the player plays.
Unfortunately, many games have embraced that device without making their worlds unique enough to warrant a player’s curiosity. Horror games like Daylight and Outlast are predictable genre stories that players have experienced in several mediums, so the collectible lore items in those games answer questions that no one cares about in the first place—in excruciating detail no less.
FILM SCHOOL 101
It’s more than a little disappointing to see just how many games year after year feel like six-hour recreations of last summer’s blockbuster movies. You move through some environments—often futuristic and grim—and shoot some dudes, and a cutscene plays with lines of witty dialogue that four people in a small room probably spent months arguing passionately about. It’s its own kind of craft, this, but it’s one that’s just not as interesting as games that are playing around with interactivity and narrative form, like Her Story, a game that has you using a database search engine to solve a mystery, or Shadow of Mordor, a game in which the enemies you fight remember you as your rivalries evolve.
Of course, these are two games that take a lot of influence from film. But they don’t give the impression that you could get more or less the same experience from watching a movie, which is essentially the chief achievement of games like Uncharted.
Everyone who played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare remembers the scene where marine Paul Jackson meets his demise after a nuclear strike. Actually playing as a man crawling through a burning wasteland while death slowly descended on him (as opposed to simply watching it happen in a cutscene) made it feel more personal, and killing off a protagonist early in the game was a Psycho-esque shocking twist for a game. Unfortunately, the series has since milked that trick for nearly all its worth.
The first Modern Warfare got away with Paul Jackson, who was a rather uninteresting, silent protagonist, because of the novelty of his demise. Now they’re just hollow and predictable. Any time I load up a first-person shooter, particularly military ones, I’m expecting the protagonist to die at some point because most contemporary shooters take pages from the same pamphlet on story design. A recent example is Killzone: Shadowfall, which sends a character you’ve spent six hours with to their death without attempting to make them anything other than a dull dude who shoots stuff and occasionally feels conflicted about the politics of his bosses. It’s a scene that plays out for the sake of shock value and that just doesn’t cut it anymore. If you’re gonna kill off your main character, at least make them worth caring about in some capacity first, like Big Daddy’s moving death at the end of Bioshock 2.
Games have a fascination with making you play as tough guys who solve problems by killing things. Packaged within that obsession is another that permeates stories in all mediums: that of presenting female characters as plot devices to further the story of male characters. In 1999 a group of comic book fans, including writer and critic Gail Simone, created a website called Women in Refrigerators that contains a list of women characters in comics who have been “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease, or had other life-derailing tragedies befall [them].” I imagine if one were to create a like-wise list for women in video games, it would be even longer.
Despite the rising number of big budget games starring women that have been released or are in development, contemporary games still have a problem with “fridging” female characters. Dying Light presents a strong, capable woman only to kill her off near the end of the game for the sake of making you mad at the antagonist. Batman: Arkham Knight only knows how to kill, kidnap, or infantilize its women even though they all share a long history of being capable, kick-ass warriors, all to delve into Batman’s psyche. Beyond being shamefully lazy writing, this is also a trope that reinforces harmful cultural beliefs about women.
PRESS ‘X’ TO FEEL
This one doesn’t need that much explanation. Just look at the above image. That’s one of the goofiest things I’ve ever seen in a game. And it’s far from the only example.
The problem with these moments is that they’re clearly engineered not to be goofy, to be the opposite in fact. They’re meant to encourage you to ruminate, however briefly, on the bloody and emotional costs of warfare. This is a profound concept packaged up as a simple interaction, an attempt by the developers to manipulate the player into feeling something. The problem isn’t the manipulation; it’s the lack of artistry behind that manipulation. The two sequences above would have been more effective if they simply played out as cutscenes and avoided inviting us to carry out emotionally loaded actions by pressing a single button. If you see the strings behind the illusion, the magic is lost, and drawing our attention back to the fact that yes, we’re playing a video game, is clumsy work at best.
Emotional manipulation should come off as natural thing. We feel for Ellie and Joel at the end of The Last of Us because of the journey they’ve been through together, not because a big red button tells us to have emotions.
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