Archive for the ‘ Storytelling in Games ’ Category

Food for Thought

“Where is the game that questions governments, challenges society, hell, asks a bloody question? Let alone issues. Good heavens, imagine a game that dealt with issues!”

John Walker, of RPS fame, recently posed this question in his article bemoaning the lack of games that have any real substance to them. As someone who had a conversation just yesterday about all the games that I consider to have terrible stories (which is almost all of them), you can’t get much dismissive than me. So… when I recommend a game, understand that I do it because I have incredibly high standards.

…aaaaand that’s why I was surprised when John went on to say this: “I want there to continue to be Call Of Duty games. But I also want there to be gaming’s All Quiet On The Western Front. It’s our 1935, and it’s about time it happened.”

Well, um.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is that game, John.

I know, I know. Everyone wants to hate on Modern Warfare 2. They say it’s a dumb, stupid Baysplosionfest. It’s strange, really: before Modern Warfare 2 came out, Call of Duty was one of the best (the absolute best) gaming experiences in the known universe. Call of Duty 4 was one of the finest games in a year that saw Portal and Bioshock released. The nuke scene, the sniper level… so much of that was memorable and superb in every way. Like the original Half-Life before it, Call of Duty transformed the industry through the best scripted events (which are not evil in and of themselves) that had ever been seen, while maintaining a high standard level of linear, corridor-shooting interactivity.

Then came Modern Warfare 2, and all that changed. Unlike most people, who seem to think that one of the finest development studios out there would suddenly be the worst ever, I’m going to blame the rushed, eighteen month development cycle, the fact that the studio had very little love for this game (much like Call of Duty 2) and were only making it as part of a deal that would let the now-stillborn-but-possibly-at-Respawn Future Warfare project come into being, and the fact that the game, in a series birthed on the PC, became nothing more than a bad PC port. Remember the “it has mouse support” debacle? The lack of dedicated servers? For some people, those wounds are still fresh. I think that’s where a lot of the hate really comes from.

Plus, the internet is a thing. The internet is a vast hate machine. It hates what’s popular–look at all the grief Halo, a franchise from one of the best shooter developers to ever walk the Earth with games nothing less than stellar (barring Halo 2’s campaign)–received when it was popular. Look in comment threads around the internet, and you’ll still find people coming out of the closet, admitting that “it wasn’t really that bad,” or “I never really hated it.” Ignore Call of Duty’s longest-time fans and dumb the game down, and you’ll get people screaming about how stupid everything about it is. Have it beat the highest-grossing movie ever made in the span of a month or two, and you can bet there will be a backlash against the game’s popularity as well.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 did deserve some of the complaints it got, mind you. The rushed development led to bugs and imbalances, and the campaign was a bit rough. That said, the people who complained about it are drooling morons.

They love to complain that it was dumbed down and stupid, despite being like every Call of Duty before it, which was praised as intelligent and awesome.

First things first: Modern Warfare moves at a much, much faster pace than most video games. There is no time to stop and have a conversation–imagine if you never had time to stop in Mass Effect 2: you’d never get to know a single character in the game, beyond the occasional “I WILL DESTROY YOU!” or whatever from a teammate. They’d be empty shells. Because of this unrelenting pace, you never really get a feel for the characters, even if they’re actually pretty well defined. I’m not just talking about Soap and Price, either. Makarov is a particularly interesting character. Even Dunn and Foley’ve got personalities.

I believe, across the Modern Warfare series, you play from the perspectives of at least fourteen different characters: Soap, Roach, Price, Yuri, a British soldier, three marines, an astronaut, a father on vacation, two gunners in an AC-130 gunship, a dictator, a CIA spy, and others I can’t recall off the top of my head. That can get pretty confusing. The game is a lot like 24, the action show where Kiefer Sutherland punches people in the face to stop terrorism and it works. That many protagonists in a fast-paced game that never gives you the time to get to know anyone is going to confuse the shit out of people, especially those who are expecting the story to be stupid and aren’t paying attention. If you pay attention to the Modern Warfare games, nearly everything makes sense. Gamesradar’s infamous and rather absurd ‘plot holes in Modern Warfare 2’ article falls apart. The only real plot holes I can remember having any validity are “how, exactly, did Price survive and not manage to be returned to the UK, why is Task Force 141 under Shepard’s control, and how did so many Russian airplanes make it across the continental United States without being noticed before they got to Washington, DC?”

But, hey, eighteen month development time. Three mistakes. That’s really not bad.

Ultimately, however, that fast pace and rapid character shift means that all the plot bits that are there–the frequently-good writing–is often ignored.

I can’t say I got much of a feel for the characters in, say, Mass Effect 2. Grunt and Miranda were pinocchios. Jacob was… inoffensive. Legion was a robot. Garrus was just Space Batmanpunisher because The Dark Knight was a cool movie. Jack was a sensitive girl who kept everyone at bay with anger. Samara was a ronin (Samara? Samurai? get it?). You can’t really say much for those characters. They’re walking encyclopedia entries with loads of personal information. Rarely do they make observations about the world (unless that observation seems to exist to contrast them to the world around, like someone writing about a kid from the country showing up in the city and going “wow, you people are strange!”), or ask questions, or demonstrate any real personality. In the gameplay, it’s even worse.

It’s interesting to get a feel for the characters of Modern Warfare 2, however. Makarov is very much a chess player. He’s arrogant. Patriotic. A complete bastard. Zakhaev’s death scarred him tremendously. Shepard’s blind patriotism to America leads him to cross the line, murdering his own people and innocent civilians to put some pride back on America’s face. Price, however, transcends nationalism, ultimately going rogue, becoming a man without a country for the greater good of the human race.

Those three characters actually sum up one of Modern Warfare 2’s major themes (did Mass Effect 2 have a theme? Nah, it was just a bad, grimdark Dirty Dozen knockoff without the all-important team-building second act): that nationalism and misguided patriotism is a terrible thing indeed. One of the quotes used in the game was from Albert Einstein, who said, “Nationalism is an infantile disease; it is the measles of mankind.” Many of the series’ trademark “death quotes” revolve around themes of nationalism, patriotism, and the dangers thereof.

People like to say that No Russian was a publicity stunt–well, it wasn’t. It was the other half of Modern Warfare 2’s point. Modern Warfare 2 flipped the war on terror on its head, putting the US in the shoes of Afghanistan and Iraq, and asked “is this just?”

Think about it! For reasons you believe to be just, you are made to do a morally questionable act because it might help stop a bad thing. Doing so turns the world on its head. Your country is framed for the actions of a few–perhaps by the country that was already planning to invade you for other reasons. One half of the game has you playing the part of the confused soldier, not knowing what’s going on, being given random, seemingly disconnected objectives, and trying to stave off a surprise invasion. The other half has you playing as the man trying to catch the people responsible.

Modern Warfare 2 ends with you stealthy murdering American soldiers in Afghanistan to pound the point home, as if it wasn’t clear enough.

Was this right? Was this just? Was this invasion a good thing?

The game’s a bit of a “blood for oil!” conspiracy-type story, I’ll admit (Russia took out the US satellite that gave them entry into the US before No Russian took place). It dwells a bit too much on the events and not enough on the characters (but… what would you do? Cutscenes? All the character time is spent during loading sequences and in gameplay dialog; the game’s as efficient as a shark when it comes to gameplay–it’s even better than Half-Life in its relentless desire to keep you in the experience–it never locks you in a room and lets you run around like a madman for ten minutes). It’s got a great deal of failings. But… it does ask questions. It bothers to be more than just an action game. I think the only other post-2007 games I played that really did that were Bioshock 2 and Minerva’s Den, and I’ll write about them elsewhere.

You may dislike the theme, the unrealism, or even disagree with the argument it puts forth. But you can’t disagree that it tries, and it would be hard to disagree with the suggestion that few games try as hard. The only reason it failed was because no one came in expecting it to have a good story, and then, when they did play it, nobody bothered to pay attention to what was actually there. It’s as if they were like “nah, it’s not going to be good, so I don’t care,” or maybe they just fell for the fantastic set pieces. Or, hey, maybe they all just played the multiplayer.

Whatever the case was, people ignored Modern Warfare 2’s story and point, and then they went on about how bad it was. Say what you will about its shortcomings–I can point out many shortcomings in All Quiet on the Western Front–but Modern Warfare 2 made an effort to make a point about the world around us, and there are damn few games I can say the same for.

Also, is the only game I’ve played with homages to one of the best action movies ever: The Rock. Saving the White House, riding on the underwater subthingies, and fighting through the showers were all direct references to some of the best bits in the movie.

The story has its problems, don’t get me wrong, but in terms of actually bothering to ask good questions, Modern Warfare 2 does its job. If you want something greater than baby food… give Modern Warfare 2 a thoughtful go. To run with Walker’s food comparison, I’d say that Modern Warfare 2 is to game stories as a jelly sandwich is to baby food–it’s food for five year olds as opposed to food for infants. Games do need to grow up. They suck. I hate nearly every game story I’ve encountered, unless I’m in a mood for bad stories (which I am, on occasion), but Modern Warfare 2, despite all the hate it gets, is actually one of the few steps in the right direction.

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Daily Think: Changing the Outcome

One thing I really dislike about video games is when you get to make a choice, but no matter which choice you make, the outcome is always the same. In other words, the devs actually changed the outcome on you. Take Infamous: no matter what you do, no matter how you’ve played, Trish will die no matter what you do. If you choose to rescue the doctors, she’ll die. If you choose to rescue her, it’ll turn out she was actually with the doctors.

I might be in the minority on this, though. I can’t remember which game it was, but there was an AAA game release recently that allowed the players to make a choice… and the outcomes were different. Like you’d expect choices to be, with consequences and all that. Some people were quite upset at this, however, and believed that your decisions should somehow lead to the same result. I can understand not wanting to deny myself access to part of a game in a playthrough, of course, but I think the decisions should always make some sort of sense. Otherwise, you have a plot hole–a gap in the story’s logic.

So, for Infamous’s decision, a reasonable way to ensure one outcome for two choices would have been, like, “just as I got to Trish, a sniper’s bullet hit her in the chest and she died. I tried to bring her back, but only for a few seconds…” and so forth.

Now, I do take issue with decisions where I can think of ways to deal with everything without an outcome I’ll regret. For instance, in Saint’s Row: The Third, I have a ton of homies. Why couldn’t I send them to rescue Shaundi and co while I went after the bad guy? Why couldn’t I do the opposite?

Why force me into a binary choice, game writers/designers, without making sure to carefully eliminate all other conceivable options?