Jeff’s Hang Up With Nested Stories

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Bones8677

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Hello Giantbomb, I wanted to comment and question as to where Jeff’s “hang up” with Nested Stories came from, assuming a clear origin exists. If Jeff himself could chime in on this, that would be extremely helpful.

In the latest Bombcast, the crew is discussing Hellblade and its use of mental psychosis as a character trait. Jeff commented that he was concerned that the story would end with “the girl waking up in some office building.” Suggesting that the events of the game were all a dream. I’ve noticed that this is a common concern for Jeff. He’s brought this up a few times in previous Bombcasts. “I’m afraid this game will end up being - YOU WERE IN A COMA THIS WHOLE TIME.” Especially in regards with indie games that have stories that are atypical to most games.

For clarity’s sake, a Nested Story is essentially a ‘story-within-a-story.’ Jeff’s occasional worry is with a subset of this narrative, the Nested Story Reveal, or even more specifically the ‘It Was All a Dream’ trope. Perhaps the most famous example being The Wizard of Oz.

FYI: Nested Story refers to the Russian Nesting Dolls.
FYI: Nested Story refers to the Russian Nesting Dolls.

This narrative reveal has been used to greater and lesser effect in film and TV shows. See Jacob’s Ladder and Dallas for more extreme examples of quality. But it’s not as common a trope in Video Games, at least not enough to warrant continued concern when it comes to games whose stories veer a little off the beaten path.

So why the hang up? I can understand being annoyed with the trope in general as it can often be used as a story crutch. But I’m not quite sure why Jeff would preemptively assume that a game’s story would not only end with a twist, but that it would end with it all being a dream, or a coma, etc.

So what are your thoughts? How do you feel about this story trope? Do you have some good examples of it being used? Let me know what you think.

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BisonHero

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I somewhat agree with Jeff, in that if there is any hinting of a weird later game twist, I would rather it be subtlely in the game, not a tipoff received from the credits. Like, if MGS2 had an opening credit of "Shadow Moses reenactment and societal manipulation consultant", I would be kinda pissed off.

That being said, I think Jeff is really jumping to conclusions that just because there is mention of a mental health professional with Hellblade that he should be looking at every single thing in the game as some possible unreliable narrator shit and maybe the whole thing isn't what it appears to be. He's really getting ahead of himself that there's even going to be some bizarre twist to the game just based on that one bit of info.

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kedi2

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Personally, I think it makes it feel like all the preceding events were of no consequence and cheapens any impact they may have had since they weren't actually real.

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bill_mcneal

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@kedi2: That's how it is for me.

Oh, it turns out nobody actually shot JR and he was just in the shower. That entire thing was just a dream/coma/fantasy.

Oh, ha! They were actually dead the entire time and none of it really meant anything.

I can't think of any in video games off the top of my head, especially because the types of games I tend to play wouldn't really lend themselves to that type of ending.

"Oh, you spent 200+ hours defeating the Reapers and saving the galaxy. However it was just the imagination of an autistic child staring into a snow globe. Thanks for playing!"

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Redhotchilimist

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#5  Edited By Redhotchilimist

First of all, I'm with @kedi2. If a game suddenly reveals "This was really a dream/game/hallucination" all along, then it ceases to be meaningful because none of it was real even in the context of the characters and setting of the game. So any reveal of that kind is instantly a turnoff. I was amazed that the Indoctrination Theory for Mass Effect 3 was something fans actually were looking for.

When I heard that Hellblade was a game about mental health, the immediate assumption is that there's gonna be a twist. Demons aren't real, so if they're taking the subject matter as Seriously as they're saying, then I expected all of the proceedings to be a metaphor or hallucination in some way that she fights in her own Palace, Persona style(and judging by my interactions in that comment section, they're a metapohor for a viking raid in some way, and Senua is actually a picht. I fully expected her to turn out to be a modern woman).

Besides, it feels really easy. I used to take some game classes, and the first thing anyone thought up for a "meaningful game with few mechanics" is a fantasy landscape where you go left or right, with one side being more comfortable and dark and one being gradually louder and lighter. And if you get all the way to the light side, you wake up from a coma. Or was it that if you go all the way to a pleasant light side, you ascend, while the noisy dark side is what makes you come out of the coma? I forget. Whatever, it's just the kinda twist dumb students come up with first thing in an assignment.

Edit: But also Jeff has a ton of weird likes and dislikes just based on his personal tastes. If it doesn't bother you, it doesn't bother you, and I certainly don't share the man's opinion on everything.

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BoccKob

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"Oh, you spent 200+ hours defeating the Reapers and saving the galaxy. However it was just the imagination of an autistic child staring into a snow globe. Thanks for playing!"

And then they brought him back to work on Anthem!

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veektarius

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#7  Edited By veektarius

The term "Nested Story" is too grandiose for a concept where all the time was devoted to a single plotline and the larger plotline is only hinted at as a plot device meant to explain away how some very unrealistic plot elements could have occurred. If you want to say the story of the Matrix was a nested storyline, with the Mr. Anderson corporate plotline nested inside the battle for Earth plotline, I'll buy that.

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kurtbro900

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#8  Edited By kurtbro900

I think it's probably because this has become a very cliche way for art games to make the story seem more complex than it is. It is what I would call 'cheap symbolism'. While telling a story in this way can be good, it is often executed poorly. In layman's terms, he is making fun of game devs that have their heads up their asses.

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hatking

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Super Marios Bros 2 is fantastic. Fight me, Jeff.

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ajamafalous

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@kedi2 said:

Personally, I think it makes it feel like all the preceding events were of no consequence and cheapens any impact they may have had since they weren't actually real.

This is it for me

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Quarters

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I'm kind of with Jeff on this. It's a really easy, cheap way to try and trick people into thinking your game is memorable. It's just a lazy twist.

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Zeik

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#12  Edited By Zeik

@redhotchilimist: @bill_mcneal: @kedi2:

I think it heavily depends on the aftermath of the sequence and if it has any lasting impact or visible progression in any characters involved. If a character wakes up from the "dream" and simply goes on with their life as if nothing happened that's lame, but if there is visible growth in that character as a result of that dream then those events matter, whether they were real or not.

Life is Strange is the first thing that comes to mind. None of it is technically a "dream", but the idea of rewriting time where only you know what happened is a very similar concept. Regardless of whether any of the the events Max experiences technically happen, it has a clear and profound effect on her character growth by the end of that game. Suggesting none of it mattered just because only she remembers would be very disingenuous.

I haven't played Hellblade yet, but if it turned out to all be a delusion that she overcomes in the end that can still be a worthwhile story to tell if executed well. Whether what you see is literal or figurative it still matters if it results in real character progression and growth. Now if say it turned out it was just a dream of a completely normal person who was just imagining what it might be like to suffer from mental illness that would be a lame way to execute the idea, since the end result would likely have minimal consequence on said character.

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devise22

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@redhotchilimist: Gotta completely disagree with you guys. The "well none if it was real" argument is such a cop out to a lot of times what those twist endings are supposed to be about. Reminding you that nothing is real, in some cases. Even the world we live in. But in most cases, at least when those types of twists are used effectively it's to get the audience in question to recognize they were feeling emotions about fake things all along. Whether the plot in question ultimately opens to say it was all meaningless or not, it is. It's still a work of fiction entirely that is crafted by other people trying to get you to pay attention and feel things. In some cases that is supposed to be the "power" behind those type of revelations.

I don't earnestly think that makes something more or less memorable either, and I do agree that it has been used as a cheap twist tons of times. But that said, I still don't think that just as a concept it's somehow the problem. Like anything, all about how it's used.

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sparky_buzzsaw

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It's a bad, overused trope used by writers who aren't willing to commit to a story's consequences. Same with starting a novel off with the weather or that horrible fucking "...but let me start at the beginning" bullshit.

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RetroMetal

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St. Elsewhere... Bob Newheart...

Depends on how it's used. Could be great in a video game.

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GundamGuru

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#16  Edited By GundamGuru
@bill_mcneal said:

I can't think of any in video games off the top of my head, especially because the types of games I tend to play wouldn't really lend themselves to that type of ending.

Infamously (kinda) happens in Final Fantasy X, as @zombiepie and @thatpinguino can tell you.

Some of the endings of Nier: Automata could be read this way. Though I suppose that's less a straight "it was all a dream" and more it was all a lie, but the loss of emotional investment in the world was similar.

Edit: Another one I remembered was Star Ocean 3, where the ending twist is that the entire universe is actually an MMO for 5th dimensional beings, and the alien invaders are just antivirus programs.

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asmo917

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#17  Edited By asmo917

@kedi2: That's how it is for me.

Oh, it turns out nobody actually shot JR and he was just in the shower. That entire thing was just a dream/coma/fantasy.

Fucking spoilers man!

(Kidding!!)

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There is the danger of not caring about any characters or stories once you know or suspect that it's just going to pull out at the end in some dumb twist. However, Jeff has a tendency to immediately jump to the worst conclusions, like every nested story is just a psyche out cut to credits to fuck with people. In the case of Hellblade, all they said was they wanted to make a game that deals with mental health issues, so they hired a professional supervisor. I don't get where this immediately leads to "you're actually in a mental ward the whole time" conclusions.

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ToTheNines

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There was actually a pretty interesting Buffy the vampire slayer episode of all things, that used the psych ward yikes is it all in my head "trope" but they left it purposely vague for the sake of the show, but I found it extremely well done.

What I'm trying to say is that all though it might seem like a worn out premise, it can still be done well. Especially if you explore it from the beginning rather than using it as a conclusion to a story.

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GERALTITUDE

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Things don't need to be real to matter, never understood that angle myself, but, it's super common.

I think it really depends on how it's all handled. Generally, I don't have hard rules against concepts. Execution is what matters, etc. The twist of "it was all a dream" could be bad, could be good.

There was actually a pretty interesting Buffy the vampire slayer episode of all things, that used the psych ward yikes is it all in my head "trope" but they left it purposely vague for the sake of the show, but I found it extremely well done.

That's a good episode - if it's the one I'm thinking about - with the kid who was abused by his little league coach. Good example of using "the dream world" to overcome real world fears. In that case however, dreams were invading reality to some (as you said) vague extent.

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Colonel_Pockets

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Hasn't he said that he wants a Duke Nukem game to end up like that?

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Redhotchilimist

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#22  Edited By Redhotchilimist

@devise22 said:

@redhotchilimist: But in most cases, at least when those types of twists are used effectively it's to get the audience in question to recognize they were feeling emotions about fake things all along.

I guess we just can't be on the same page about this, because the reason revelations like that ring so hollow to me is that I have never in my life read a piece of fiction and thought "this is reality". I aleady know that I'm feeling emotions about fake things. It just feels like an actor breaking character in the middle of the movie to talk about his private life, or a book suddenly being meta about its pagecount. I already know this isn't real. Why are you trying to ruin your own performance with this navelgazing?

Not all "It was all a dream" twists are that meta, mind. But it turns a story about, say, a grand adventure, into a story about some shit the character just dreamt up that night. If you're gonna use that kinda storytelling, you better do it Driver San Francisco style and make it clear immediately that you're in a coma, and that's why you're suddenly a ghost that can possess drivers. I'm not gonna mind a twist like that if it's a means to an end that's interesting, instead of a cop-out, or something that only makes sense in a meta context. But if it's just "Take a look in the MIRROR!", screw that.

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#23  Edited By Captain_Insano

I think shows/media that end with the trope of 'it was all a dream' are definitely a cop out - it's not even a matter of questioning reality - it's more of a 'Ha, made you look!' type of reveal.

It can be used effectively if it does have you legitimately question reality. Nolan films (Memento, Inception) are good examples of films that leave you thinking: wait....what the fuck? At the end, and make you question what you've seen. Even OG Total Recall and Blade Runner are examples of this used well. Shutter Island and Sixth Sense spoilers to follow, if you've been under a rock the past 20 years. I feel like Shutter Island went for the same 'twist' - 'oh, Leo is actually an asylum patient!' but it was a bit heavy handed and fairly predictable from a long way out. The Sixth Sense however, 'oh man, Bruce Willis is a ghost! - I totally should've got that from the home invasion scene in the first minute!' especially because of when it was released, did the twist reveal quite effectively at the time.

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BoOzak

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Yeah I hate 'em. I just finished a game that ended up like that recently and it wasnt Hellblade. (I havent played HB) It really rubs me the wrong way, unless the game is up front about it like The Evil Within and Alice: Madness Returns. (i'm guessing Superhot does also, but I havent played it)

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poobumbutt

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#25  Edited By poobumbutt

I subscribe to the idea - that a few others have stated - that it's all about how it's used. Say, for example, the point of the "it was all a dream" twist was to characterize the dreaming person as someone who can't tell dream from reality. And to further ask whether that means anything can truly be "real", for her or for us, the audience. Or perhaps to ask the viewer directly why they care so much about this type of plot development "devaluing" the story. The story you were experiencing was already "fake", why does it matter that it was so in the film's universe? Perhaps that says something about how easily we become attached to fictional characters as real people - and so on and so on. Point is, this would be what I think of as a good use of the twist.

But if it was just used a quick and easy shock ending, with no discernible hints at something deeper being asked or communicated, then yeah, that would be insulting. Furthermore, it might just be the feeling you get. Some people hate feeling manipulated in this way, while others like the sensation of being taken on a ride you didn't know you were on. Perhaps Jeff is just the former?

Regardless, I do think he was jumping to conclusions here. It's a video game trying to deal - seriously and tactfully - with mental health issues and thus wanted to front load the steps they took to be professional about it. Inside a vacuum, I can see this being a little weird. However, given the history of games inserting these themes into their central plot (Hi Tender Loving Care!), it starts to make some sense. This is what baffled me the most about Jeff's comments. He is one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever known about video games. Therefore, I would think his first assumption with something like this wouldn't be "they're foreshadowing a future twist!" and rather "Oh, they're trying to show me that they are legitimately trying to be professional and careful about these subjects. Not just because of their societal weight, but because of this medium's unfortunate history dealing with them - or perhaps more aptly, NOT dealing with them."

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deactivated-5f39c75856922

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It's a bad, overused trope used by writers who aren't willing to commit to a story's consequences. Same with starting a novel off with the weather or that horrible fucking "...but let me start at the beginning" bullshit.

Ya, it feels like just a cop out to me.

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ArbitraryWater

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I was about to say I think all of these sorts of plot reveals are lazy, terrible bullshit, but then I remembered that I really like Metal Gear Solid 2 and even liked the meta-conceits of Prey. So I guess even that trope can be done well occasionally.

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#28  Edited By whitegreyblack

I cannot speak for him, but perhaps Jeff just doesn't like nested stories when they are used in a way that comes off as overly convenient (read: lazy) writing; and, as @kedi2 posted, cheapens the rest of the game & story you experienced? Jeff speaks very highly of the "the player character is in a coma" hook of Driver San Francisco so it seems like he's okay with the angle if it's done in an interesting way.

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forteexe21

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Isn't the twist Jeff mentioned for COD Black Ops 3 a nested story and he likes it?

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Giantstalker

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@kedi2 said:

Personally, I think it makes it feel like all the preceding events were of no consequence and cheapens any impact they may have had since they weren't actually real.

This is it exactly. Like, there was obviously a "real" world with a "real" story happening... care to focus on that? Oh, wait, the game already happened? Where's the beef?

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#31  Edited By ToTheNines

@geraltitude: No, I don't think it's that one. Spoilers obviously: It's the one where Buffy gets poisoned by some demon and keeps hallucinating that she's in a psych ward dealing with her vampire slayer delusions and sense of self grandeur. Both her parents are alive and she's jus a normal young woman who spent most of her teenage years in a mental hospital and none of her friends are real. And she keeps drifting back and forth between both realities and she starts longing to the more realistic world where both her parents are alive. In the end they obviously won't commit to the fact that none of its real for the sake of the show, but leaves the possibility open. I am not doing it any justice with this recap.

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deactivated-598d846d3a52a

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I disagree with the folks who claim "using dreams is a cop out, lazy or up their ass". I get it, it's been used in poor ways before. However, some of my favourite works have used the idea of dreams. For example, David Lynch, Jean Cocteau and Maya Deren.

I believe if it's done in an interesting way and hasn't been tacked on for the sake of it, then it could make for interesting stories. I am quite the fan of writing that isn't done in a logical (from path A to path B) way but rather in a dream-like fashion. Maybe it's because in college I did creative writing but it's super annoying when you try to show individuality and get called 'up your own ass' because it has a theme of dreams. People are quick to judge.

I love Jeff but like everybody has his quirks. One of them is jumping to the worst conclusions. I find he often judges too quickly.

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Fezrock

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I think these types of stories are often done poorly, hence the frustration with them (which I also share). But they can also be done really well, especially if the twist is done slightly differently from the standard tropes listed by the OP. For instance, the entire Assassin's Creed series, and the first game in particular, could be considered this; but no one really seems to mind.

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deactivated-5c295850623f7

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I think this style of storytelling works best when it's very subtle / used as a pseudo narrative (ie. some interpretations of FF8) but agree with Jeff in most instances: it is often used as a shortcut to deepness / interesting plot turns which can feel lazy and unearned.

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Dixavd

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I think Nested Stories can be very interesting if they're not the entire resolution. Stories which use them as ways to quickly end a narrative often feel cheap and like a betraying of trust with the player about the importance of their actions. I much prefer stories which can use the revelation as a branching off point to something greater, or are written in a way where the events in the story-within-a-story still hold weight. It's also a story technique that lives-and-dies on the reveal; sometimes writers that can't pull it off would be better to show it as the premise rather than potentially betray the player later.

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dafdiego777

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I somewhat agree with Jeff, in that if there is any hinting of a weird later game twist, I would rather it be subtlely in the game, not a tipoff received from the credits. Like, if MGS2 had an opening credit of "Shadow Moses reenactment and societal manipulation consultant", I would be kinda pissed off.

That being said, I think Jeff is really jumping to conclusions that just because there is mention of a mental health professional with Hellblade that he should be looking at every single thing in the game as some possible unreliable narrator shit and maybe the whole thing isn't what it appears to be. He's really getting ahead of himself that there's even going to be some bizarre twist to the game just based on that one bit of info.

I totally agree with you. Nested Plots usually suck because it feels like "hey remember all that work you did? turns out none of this matters/isn't real etc." But automatically assuming Hellblade is a nested plot device or anything like that is unfair. My interpretation of the mental health professional title is that the developers wanted you to know they took this shit seriously, and were going to treat mental health in this game with the respect and sympathy it deserves.

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#38  Edited By WillyOD

I don't know about Jeff, but at some point we've seen everything and things come predictable (and sometimes even stale) and that's no good.

I feel like people have less of an attention span these days, and we're moving towards faster stories (and replayability through elements like rogueliteness, also idle/clicker games that actually play themselves with little or no interaction). I'd imagine most people have less and less time for games as they grow older, so just investing the time to finish a game (~10-60 hours), you really want it (or most of it) to be good, exciting and surprising.

Jacob's Ladder though.... Been meaning to watch it again for years. I guess it's a bit too gloomy for me so I finally started House of Cards last night and I'm really liking it.

About Hellblade, the actual game part seems so thin that I'm sure I'd personally get bored very fast. Just from looking the QL a bit the whole thing feels a bit gimmicky, but perhaps it could be an "eye-opening experience" for someone who hasn't thought about these things. I know people that hear voices in real life but all those experiences are so PERSONAL and DIFFERENT (from what I've heard) so that makes Hellblade seems bland to me.

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DarkeyeHails

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It is way more often mishandled and a result of lazy, hack writing than a cleverly considered and executed story. The rare times it is done well it can really work. Used poorly it saps all the stakes and meaning out of a story.

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Retris

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@captain_insano: I didn't watch the movie version of Shutter Island but the book version ends with you questioning whether the main character is actually insane or has just been drugged to believe he is insane. I've heard that the movie adaption was bad, especially with them assuming that everyone would have read the book and knew the twist anyways.