2011 felt like a year of missed opportunities. There were some great moments and maybe a few truly great games but for the most part it seemed as if the industry could not take steps towards the mature art form it professes to be. In a year in which gaming proved itself conclusively to be the most profitable entertainment medium on earth it seems almost shocking that so many games, even those ranked amongst the highest-quality of the year failed so badly in certain aspects of their execution, most notably writing. The inadequacy, again for the most part, of storytelling, characterisation and dialogue tells of videogames origins, and how the blessing of interaction can lead to unfocused or lazy design.
Your Mum or Gran might still think all video games are simple childish affairs where hirsute D.I.Y men jump on mushrooms or space men shoot down aliens but they have, or have attempted to be, more than this for quite some time now. However this innocuous statement of fact still angers people, the type of poster who cries, “Games are supposed to be fun, they are not serious” in every debate about games as art, or sexism in the medium. Games these days want to say something, they want to be a story or they want to create a world, an attitude which requires a serious artistic approach. The problem that this year has highlighted is that game developers are still too willing to abort attempts at an integrated approach and retreat back to simplistic notion of ‘games as fun’ even if today’s idea of fun is nothing like the 8-bit efforts of yesterday.
This is not to attribute ambitions which do not exist to today’s developers. Consider one of the year’s biggest releases, Uncharted 3. The sequel to one of the most highly praised games of all time and a title which really defined what we could expect of characterisation and writing in a blockbuster mass-market game was in the words of its own writer “about fundamentally the characters and what is happening to them and why you are emotionally invested.” These are big, ambitious words and the upfront presence of the writer Amy Hennig spoke to the importance the production team placed on the writing in Uncharted 3. I am not the most experienced gaming historian but I can’t remember a game’s writer ever getting as much prominence as Amy Hennig received in the lead up to the game’s November launch.
Why then was the game’s story, plotting and characterisation such a disappointing mess, not just relative to the first game but on its own terms as well? We may never know the how the production process unfolded, and even allowing for the usual pre-launch puffery we have come to expect the writing of Uncharted 3 felt beaten into submission by the demands of the game play designers. Of course this will always be the way to a certain extent, producing a game must be a collaborative effort, and no writer is ever going to write a script and expect a game to be designed around it especially when the genesis of many games will be mechanic knocked up on some designers computer or a cool character on some artists pad. But....for a game trailed as a cinematic experience it was disappointing that the only filmic quality Uncharted 3 possessed were the undoubted pyrotechnic brilliance of its set-pieces. There were sights of a compelling script dwelling on themes of madness and love but it was lost in diversions aboard pirate ships, through the unresolved characterisation of Talbot, one of main villains, and other missteps. The game broadly hinted that Talbot may have supernatural powers but failed to resolve this, such was the confusion that Amy Hennig ended up having to try and clear up the mystery via Twitter and other gaming forums. This is clearly unsatisfactory in a game with the pretentions outlined above.
More damning is that the pirate ship levels, which seemed to most like a totally unnecessary detour plot wise, contained some of the best game play in the title and technically, as expressed by Cowboy on one of Giant Bomb’s E3 podcasts, were the developer’s proudest achievement. For me this was a crystal clear demonstration of the conflict which gaming failed to resolve in 2011. If James Cameron had a kick-ass sequence in Aliens where for 20mins of undoubtedly thrilling action Ripley was abducted from LV-426 by space pirates before escaping back to the main plot he might stick it as an extra on the DVD but it wouldn’t make it into the film because directors understand that a successful work of art requires the constituent creative strands to be considerately balanced. Game production still thinks in terms of levels and content before harmony.
While Uncharted 3 was the most obvious offender this year mostly because of history and pretention most of the year’s big games seemed to share a weakness in one or another pillars of their storytelling. That two games, Skyrim and Deus Ex, should give rise to memes of varying tiresomeness predicated on aspects of their dialogue and delivery, “I took an arrow to the knee,” and “I didn’t ask for this,” amazes when one thinks of the ambition of the designers. Both games were aiming for immersive, believable worlds but seemingly failed to realise that more was needed to convey this ambition than beautifully designed environments. Skyrim was one of my most joyous gaming experiences of the year but it pains me to realise how much better the experience could have been, indeed how this game could have been the defining achievement on this generation of consoles if only they had chosen to populate their stunning, snowy province with fully rounded, storied individuals. It’s not as if a Bethesda published game hadn’t managed this before. Last year’s Fallout New Vegas was packed with believable, winning characters, Veronica, Yes Man, Cass, Lilly and more, all personalities unmatched by any of the dry NPC’s in Skyrim. Is this just down to the limitations of staid fantasy tropes? It hardly seems likely when The Witcher 2 has been so highly praised for storytelling. Skyrim may have boasted of over 60,000 lines of dialogue but this mountain of words left me unable to describe the personality of even one of its characters. Compounding the problem was a fault it shared with Deus Ex, leaden or risible delivery. Why are performances which would get the worst hack actor laughed from the stage of a village hall considered acceptable in huge budget blockbuster videogames? Speaking like Jason Statham after a year living in the desert on a diet of Gauloise and black coffee is no substitute for nuance and even the most inattentive gamer is going to notice when the same actor plays the entire support cast of game supposed to enjoyed for scores of hours. Even more so when it is all in the same accent.
Why do developers and game studio believe performances and scripting like this are acceptable? It cannot be because they think they are providing quality, Deus Ex’s voice acting was being called out well before release and Cole’s voice in Infamous 2 had to undergo a rewrite when the internet complained about his new gruffer tones. It is especially sad when so many games get it right, even when you think they might be the very projects to not pay too much attention to the less traditional aspects of production. Dead Space 2 and Batman Arkham City both realise that the stories they wanted to tell would kick that much harder if they had quality behind the microphone. Mark Hamill is rightly famous for his Joker but great performances run right through Arkham City and what could have been cartoonish dialogue is delivered with just the appropriate amount of manic glee and serious conviction. It’s not easy to do and getting wrong can yank the player from the game world.
Why then do studios fall short so often? Aside from the games I have mentioned other big names to fail with either voice work or writing included Dead Island who managed to include a poorly acted stereotype of most major nationalities, and L.A. Noire who destroyed a perfectly serviceable James Ellroy pastiche by writing themselves into a hole halfway through the game. Developers obviously still think great experiences can be created with writing either an afterthought or as tool to link the disparate game-play arenas they have created. In this they are sadly half-right, as evidenced by Skyrim as my number two game this year and Deus Ex my number three. However gamers are hopefully going to become less and less tolerant of this as attitude, especially so when we consider the experiences we might have had if developers had paid more attention to story, dialogue and character. If Bethesda had passed the writing of Skyrim over to Obsidian or some equally competent wordsmiths we could have been left with a title to stand as the War and Peace or Vanity Fair of gaming.
The Good Guys
Thankfully there were some people who got it right this year. I don’t think Volition ever thought the Saint’s Row series would be in the vanguard of videogame writing, I expect they just wanted to give people a good time and make them laugh. However Saint’s Row the Third’s strengths and design aims seem the exact opposite of Skyrim and Deus Ex. The game play is nothing new and the visuals are certainly not exciting at all, what makes it so appealing is the snappy, witty dialogue and ridiculous set pieces the writers conjure up. Even all the toys they throw at you from early on couldn’t keep players entertained, if it was all played out in a serious crime story setting. The writing plus the fantastic comic performances make Saint’s Row the Third and are a lesson to other developers not to underestimate or be scared of comedy. Also in the plus column we have Bastion, and amazingly Gears of War 3 but again it was left to masters of videogame storytelling to show us how to integrate design, narrative and acting into a perfect whole.
I am talking of course of Portal 2. This game has received a lot of praise this year but I really don’t think people have appreciated just how perfect its conception really is. There is no fat for a start. There are no levels which feel extraneous, where the puzzle designer had a real killer but it happened to be set on a pirate ship. All the parts feel in service of each other and while this isn’t a new quality in a Valve game and I don’t think I am blowing anyone’s mind by pointing out how well they combine action and story, it sometimes seem we don’t appreciate what a rare treat this is. What makes Portal such a special series is that there is really no need of a story at all. After all, you start the first game believing it is just a little puzzle game. However after finishing Portal 2 you could not imagine going through the test chambers without the glorious world and characters Valve have built to accompany you. Why this game is so important and why it shows so glaringly what is lacking in the rest of this year’s titles is Valve’s insistence that all facets of game design are of equal merit. It is this approach which will lead gaming out of the strange ghetto it occupies in so many people’s eyes. To be sure Portal 2 is not some strange outlier, there are other games which manage this unity of vision but it needs a work of real creative excellence to show others the way, to prove that it can be done. This is not a plea for games to change, to stop being fun and to start being art, just to be better. I am not demanding that all our experiences are played out to Oscar worthy scripts with emotive performances in every role. It’s not about that, but it is about treating this medium more seriously, again not in tone but in conception. It is about understanding what makes a great game and that if we want to create something truly amazing, unbalanced priorities won’t cut it anymore. Videogames are still the only medium where multi-million dollar projects have design choices which are either baffling or which seem not to have been made at all. Films, books and visual art can be consistently mediocre but they do not demonstrate the incoherence so often found in video games. But yet I keep coming back, and keep loving it and this is the advantage an interactive medium possesses. The reality of how much more satisfying it is to watch a car move through the streets when we control each turn is gaming’s blessing. However the innate thrill of interaction means there is still so much joy to be garnered from unbalanced or substandard games that development can be unfocused, especially as regards writing. This natural advantage gaming has should be the first step to a different, more visceral art form, a starting point for exploration rather than an end in itself. This is a lofty ambition and is understandably rarely met. Maybe only one game has succeeded in 2011 and it has rarely been bettered.