Dear Game Developers
We are not (all) half-brained, drooling hunks of sweating meat, awkwardly clutching controllers in front of a television screen, from where the sounds of explosions and/or (usually scantily clad) screaming women and/or sparkly noises emerge. Contrary to what some might think, many of us do care about things like stories, characters and motivations. So you’re not fooling us when you dig into Hollywood’s or Marvel Comic’s recycle bin. We know you’re getting lazy and it’s insulting to us when you do the following to your so-called stories.
1. When It’s Not Established Why The Hell We Should Care
Offenders: (too many, but recently) Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Dead Island, Duke Nukem Forever.
So you’ve collected the idol of Shin-Shoo-Whami and battled the Frost Giants of Garg. You’ve travelled to Peru and Germany, destroyed the Eifel Tower and blown up parts of the Pyramid of Giza (all by the way with governments not really caring despite the obvious expenses and loss of tourism). And now, during a cutscene, some arbitrary person with angel wings has said, in a booming voice that sounds vaguely like a popular actor/actress from that day-time soapie, that you need to collect the Fourteen Stones of… wait, wait, wait. What the hell?
Why am I doing this?! I’m tired of being shot at, tossed around, beaten up and watching characters (that my character cared about) die. The only reason I’m playing this now is because it looks really pretty and I paid a lot of money for it. But that is not a reason to involve yourself in the game, let alone any creative medium. That doesn’t make me want to explore the beautiful set-pieces, it doesn’t make me want to learn how to forge new weapons and fight better. All it makes me want to do is finish the game as quickly as possible so I can return it. Oh and the prospect of playing with hormonal teenage American boys is as tantalising to me as any other paedophilic act (i.e. not at all, officer).
Uncharted 3 does this constantly. Throughout the entire experience, I couldn’t understand anybody’s motivation, whether Marlowe or Drake. Drake is hounded endlessly but armies of thugs trying to kill him, and he pushes on, constantly putting his friends in danger. I couldn’t understand the undying loyalty of Talbot to Marlowe. I thought he kept calling her “Mother” (it was “Marlowe”), and only when I had subtitles on did I realise they weren’t mother and son – so that motivation was gone. The great adventure itself is not at all explained; sure there’s some relation to Nathan Drake (who by the way*… spoiler alert, read the bottom of the column if you’ve finished Uncharted 3 or don’t mind) but really, who the hell cares? It’s just a ring, Nate, and your name’s not Bilbo or Gollum.
Great games, like Bioshock, play on this wilful ignorance brilliantly with the famous twist ending (“Would you kindly…?”). And there, that’s fine, they put that in as a deliberate part of the whole mechanism. Assassin’s Creed elegantly portrays political unrest and weaves a brilliant story into it: I know why Ezio (who’s still my favourite games character ever) is in Constantinople. It also gives me a vague indication, since I have to acquire all the MacGuffins (and I know why), of how much longer I have until I finish the game.
Why it Benefits Everyone (Including Developers) To Fix This: A great story is always a benefit. One that is nuanced and serves as universal motivator brings people back. Wanting to find out what the hell is going is as meat-and-potatoes as it comes but at least it’s interesting – at least we, the gamer, understand. We, ourselves, want to know why the hell we received a letter from our dead wife, why we’ve awoken after decades of supposedly being dead and so on. Developers get higher scores and gamers won’t easily be returning the games for something else, making them ultimately forgetful. If you remember a great gaming experience, chances are you’ll buy that company’s next game.
2. When Hero Has Long Lost or Was Right Alongside Villain THE ENTIRE TIME (Without Hero Knowing)
Offenders: Bioshock, God of War 3, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Max Payne 2, and so on. (I haven’t mentioned popular recent games, since I don’t want to spoil it. Please don’t comment on recent games for this point in the comments section!)
So you’ve completed all these amazing tasks, all in the hope of escaping/finding your lost butterfly collection/saving your town and then, as you’re about to finish *BANG!* A cackle of laughter and the wise old man/woman/hot girl that’s been accompanying you morphs into some abomination, who has a voice like Xerxes from ‘300’. It points at you, makes you convulse or freeze or collapse, then calmly scoops up the sword/gem/butterfly case and sarcastically thanks you for accomplishing what it could not – because you were a ‘pure’ or ‘innocent’ soul or some such nonsense.
Really? You couldn’t just let it go? You needed to have a frickin’ boss fight? What is this, the nineties? No, no, no. Stop it now.
In God of War 3, Kratos falls to Hades. As he does so, he asks Gaia to help him but she says he is nothing but a pawn. After all this time! Nooooo! In Bioshock, our main character discovers that the Irish-bloke was actually the dissenter against Andrew Ryan the entire time! Noooo! And you’ve been doing his bidding! Noooo!
OK. I know I just said that Bioshock has a great story, but it’s still commits “perform villain’s deed for them” cliché. Bioshock pulled it off, though, so even here it’s not necessarily bad but it’s still in this category. Castlevania does this, with Patrick Stewart’s character, your mentor/and only ally, suddenly transforming into a Lord of Shadow to fight, despite him helping you and so on. Really? Really!
Come now. You can do better than this.
Why it Benefits Everyone (Including Developers) To Fix This: In the previous post I spoke about the (non-existent) motivations of protagonists. This point concerns the villains. They also have wants and needs. Work it out. They’re people, too! Show some respect and bloody effort. They can come up with better motivations and villainous plots – otherwise, they’re crappy villains, no better than Donkey Kong.
3. Random, Wavy Dream Sequences
Offenders: Max Payne, Max Payne 2, Uncharted 3, Silent Hill (PSOne), etc.
“Ok, guys, listen. We need to make the game longer. So why don’t we take all the stuff that’s just happened to the player over the course of 5 hours and put all of them – the player, the villains, the NPCs – in random locations, they’ve already visited. And we can extend this as a solid play for like 5 minutes, but do it a lot, so it adds up to like 20-30 minutes. The great thing is, we can make the camera go all blurry and woozy, and make weird noises and maybe have a random baby crying and, like, blood on the walls for no reason. But the entire time its all wavy and crazy – because everyone has dreams or been in drug states like a schizophrenic psychopath, right?”
Stop this now! It’s boring and stupid. It was wholly unnecessary in Uncharted 3 and served little purpose in Max Payne when it was repeated. It added to atmosphere the first time, but when it kept happening in Max Payne, it got stupid. It’s like Max ate the drug Valkyrie regularly for breakfast. We can see you’re using the same character models – just because you’ve got them in slow-mo, with weird noises and whispering, doesn’t change the fact that you’re being cheap bastards and we’re noticing! Come off it.
Ask yourself is it really necessary for character to be drowsy, drugged or whatever – is that really necessary to the plot? If not, are you using it just to add a bit of change? If so, why not find dynamic ways of doing that like creating better set-pieces and game variety? Uncharted has some of the most beautiful set-pieces and it was completely unnecessary to include dream sequences.
Why it Benefits Everyone (Including Developers) To Fix This: I won’t be irritated is the main reason. But also, again, it shows effort on the developer’s part. I sigh every time I see one of these now. We know you’re not introducing new characters, sets, or plots. You’re going to bring in old characters, whispers and baby-crying and stupid metaphors. It’s not clever, it’s lazy. If you want to create variety and show off creativity, work with your set-pieces: have them explode, make them beautiful, make sure they’re actually part of the story and not just “cool” to look at. Create dynamic characters whose sudden changes are built up and not arbitrary to fill some plot-hole.
That’s all for now. But I think there’s more where that came from – specifically when it comes to recurring characters types.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to Nick for reminding me about Point 2 via Twitter.
*He isn’t even related to Drake the famous explorer so it’s not some stupid blood generation “must preserve the memory of my genetics” thing.
Last Updated: November 21, 2011