Deluded illusions of mediocrity, my destiny is to become the ultimate amateur. Critiques no one asked for? I'll be there! Information no one cares about? I'll be there! Bias needing confirmation? I might be there if it's a Thursday afternoon and the traffic is clear.
For you see, Conan the Barbarian was wrong when he uttered what is best in life. The true answer is to play the vidija games, to discuss the vidija games, and to hear the lamentation of the women (while playing the vidija games).
I am frequently rambling in a rather inane manner on my site of web (www.gamertagged.net), so if you are bored and have nothing better to do while waiting for your white collar slave masters to crack the whip and demand you exit the premises, then do me a favor and give my stuff a read.
Because if you don't, I'll go on with life without knowing any better. And how terrible would THAT be?
So I've been playing Darksiders 2 recently because it takes me forever to complete a game I purchased on launch day. It's a really fun game and I enjoy it, though I'm not sure if I like it more or less than the original Darksiders. I think, in truth, it is dumb to compare the two as they are truthfully very different games, and just accept that I prefer the Legend of Zelda inspiration of the first and wish they had kept that, ditched the loot and fused Zelda with Prince of Persia 2008 (at least, that's the game I'm choosing as the new primary influence as I'm a heathen and hadn't played a Prince of Persia game until Nolan North as The Prince as Nolan North).
As I was sick last week I got to play the game for an abnormally long amount of time, jumping from about 6.5 hours in to 13 or 14 or so. Being able to play so much all at once revealed a dirty little secret that caused me to just sit back and sigh, as if to say "Dammit, Vigil, I thought you were better than this".
So about two or three quests ago I reach a dungeon, and the objective is to collect three rock things to bring this massive colossus back to life. A couple dungeons later and I have to collect three rock things to summon the Arena's champion. This allows me to talk to this Rotting King fellow, who says he won't help me unless I get his three Lords from three separate dungeons. In one of these dungeons, this Lord won't help me unless I collect three different souls for judgment.
That's a "Fetch Me Three" quest in the middle of a "Fetch Me Three" quest, directly following two other "Fetch Me Three" quests. As it had been a while since I last played before having to summon that Colossus, there could have been more (in fact, one of the earlier dungeons was "Hit these three switches to get water flowing again", so it seems to be a common theme within Darksiders 2).
Now, I'd be a lot more angry at Darksiders 2 if it weren't for the fact that this is a trend in Western games as a whole. Let's jump back a bit to that Rotting King fellow.
The way the plot has moved, I cannot accomplish my ultimate task until I have the Rotting King helping out. Yet I cannot gain an audience with this Rotting King until I defeat the Arena's champion. Once I get to the Rotting King, he is forcing me to do him a favor. All the while the plot has hit a stand still, as has any sense of character development. Death is not becoming a more complex character. At most the world is being built, sure, but what is really going on is Vigil is trying to make Darksiders 2 a longer game with more content. So they create these fetch quests which delay the main story to pad onto the game length and create new dungeons.
Now let's jump to a game company that is known for exemplary story-telling in the West. Bioware.
Dragon Age: Origins begins with our selected heroic origin, which establishes your character's past and provides the impetus for them to join the Grey Wardens. The second quest is... y'know, I don't really remember the actual purpose of the second quest, but it manages to introduce the player to characters that will be valuable later. The third quest is to defend the fortress and fight against the Dark Spawn. The first major event pops up and we have our villain established. We have our overall objective.
According to Google Image Search, women find this sickly visage attractive.
Then the story pretty much stops while you go and complete three different quests where the villain basically sits and waits for you to come at him (okay, so he tosses Elven Antonio Banderas your way, but that's about all) and the Dark Spawn just sit and let you take your time. While the player is able to interact with the secondary characters and allow them to develop, it isn't through the actual story itself. It's by taking time outside of the plot.
Fifteen to twenty hours later you finally move the plot forward, and it feels like you're jumping ahead. It's like the writer didn't know what to actually do with the story once you discovered who the villain was and when you'd jump in to bust him up. You basically went on one giant fetch quest. Mass Effect was basically the same way. Several missions to collect characters where the main plot didn't really move forward too much. Same with Mass Effect 2.
Or let's take Dead Space as another example. When I talk to people about it, there's always that slog in the middle of the game. I nod and say "Yeah, it doesn't really ramp up until about Chapter 10". That's because the first few chapters are interesting. You're introduced to the Ishimura, separated from your team and gain your objective to meet back with them.
Then you spend several chapters doing nothing but fixing the damn ship. You have the occasional cryptic vision and something sort of creepy occasionally happens, but on the whole you're just fixing the ship. The closest thing to a plot development is the one crazy guy that believes Necromorphs are the future and sends Big Scary after you, but nothing in the plot really develops. It's just an excuse to keep playing the game until the final two chapters that start to wrap things up and bring the game to a close.
Now, technically this isn't exclusive to Western games. Ocarina of Time basically stops the plot while you grab the three Medallions as a kid, then stops the plot again while you rescue the sages. Yet it seems to be less of an issue where Japanese games are concerned (in these classic examples I've intentionally picked to illustrate my point).
Let's look at the beginning of Final Fantasy VI. The overall goal is "stop the Empire", but the story feels like it moves on more naturally. Character-based sub-goals exist. Terra has amnesia, so that is a constant story point. Locke, a contact for a rebellious group known as the Returners, is summoned to try and help Terra out as she could be a valuable asset, be it in her knowledge of the Empire or her magic abilities. Locke takes her to Edgar, a King pretending to help the Empire, where the story progresses. Kefka marches in, burns the Kingdom to the ground, and the trio of heroes get away. From there on they head to the Returners hide out, meeting Edgar's brother Sabin along the way without it being a spelled out objective. No one says "You guys can't meet the Returners until you do this quest!" It is merely on the way and just happens.
Or let's illustrate how the player would get the Tiny Bronco in Final Fantasy VII if it were written by Western game developers. Now, remember, the Tiny Bronco is obtained in a village where the player also gets Cid after Shinra shows up with their own objective. The whole idea is to lead the player to a location where the story moves on and offering the player the tools for the next location. It happens naturally, there's a sense of world-building and character development, and it feels natural for the enemy to be there since they, too, are looking for ways to catch up to Sephiroth.
Now I present to you Obtaining the Tiny Bronco in a Western Video Game.
Tifa (over Intercom): This place is called "Rocket Town". You're going to need find a man named Cid Highwind here.
Cloud: And he can get me a plane to fly to Sephiroth?
Tifa: Hopefully. Cid is known to have a bit of a temper, and-what's that?
Cloud: Aw damn! Shinra soldiers!
Tifa: Watch it! There are civilians around this place! Try not to shoot any of them!
Cloud (diving into cover): Easier said than done, lady!
Designer's Note: You can't actually shoot any civilians, the costs in models, textures and motion cap would be too expensive. We're just sticking a bunch of clones to occasionally duck their heads and run across screen. It'll be "immersive"
Player battles through the corridor-like town of Rocket Town until they hear some gunfire and foul language in the distance.
Cloud: What's all that about?
Cloud looks around the corner to see Cid Highwind blasting some Shinra soldiers up in a manner more bad ass than the game controls could possibly allow. He will never be this awesome on your team and will instead die half the time getting to cover that's out in the open.
Cid: Yeah! Eat that you son of a bitch! How's it taste?!
Tifa: Sounds like our guy.
Cloud:That's the greatest pilot this side of the world? You're kidding me.
Tifa: I dunno, looks like you guys ought to get along swimmingly.
"Objective: Find Cid Highwind" crosses out. Once the player approaches Cid, the screen fades out and into a cut-scene where Cid curb stomps a Shinra guard.
Cloud: Hey, you Cid-Whoa!
Cid (pointing a gun at Cloud): Lookout! I'm a middle class white man on the edge! I'm angry because I fit this game's target demographic and they have pent up cubicle and high school rage and angst!
Cloud: What do you know, I'm the same! Let's be best friends, only act like we hate each other because men are too manly to be best buds forever.
Cid: Sounds like a plan!
Cloud: So I hear you can fly people around and shit.
Cid: You hear right, but there's no way I'm taking my beautiful baby off the ground without a fight!
Cloud: We hate Shinra, too.
Cid: Well why didn't you say so? Let's get going.
Tifa: Uh, you guys might want to hurry along.
Cloud: What? Ah, shit. More Shinra incoming!
Cut scene blends into gameplay, and the player is able to shoot through the corridors of Rocket Town with Cid by his side. In the upper left corner "Objective: Get to the Plane" appears.
Fast forward, the player reaches the Tiny Bronco. They get on board, fly away, and the screen fades to black. The screen then fades in as the plane lands outside the Temple of the Ancients. Tifa notes this is where Sephiroth is, but the door he's in is locked! The player must grab three keys to unlock the door and yatta yatta you get the picture.
Now, okay, that's a lot more unfair than it really ought to be. The real issue in my mind is a video game writer's inability to marry the concept of story progression with the natural goal-oriented nature of video games. In order for a player to have a sense of progress throughout a game there must be goals, and the easiest way to portray them is as an objective.
Yet the two can work together. Let's look at Brutal Legend as an example. Even though the player has a list of objectives for attacking General Lionwhyte, they manage to make it feel as if the player is progressing through the story. After all, they're trying to build an army, and each step of the way characters are introduced, established and evolved. Eddie Riggs didn't have to go slay the giant Spider monster because the Killmaster wouldn't join him otherwise, they did it in order to save a gravely wounded friend. We learned more about Ophelia when she disobeyed orders and tried to fight by herself, and through that action she returned hurt which created a goal on its own. It moved the main plot forward while developing characters.
This sort of plot advancement is even possible in a shooter game! It just seems as if no one really knows how to marry the two together.
Which, truth told, isn't completely surprising. My understanding of the industry is that the designers will usually outline the plot, and then a writer is hired in to fill out the dialogue. This is a God awful approach to things and is typically the sort of approach that yields pretty by-the-numbers movies from Hollywood (a Producer or Director will come up with a basic story and hire someone to fill it out for them). Brutal Legend was able to do a much better job because Tim Schaffer has proven since the start of his career that his talents lie beyond the technical.
So while the games industry is hiring people that are better at dialogue, they really need to be stepping up a writer's involvement. Have the writer there from the beginning, or even go so far as to get story ideas from writers that will then flesh the game out, all while working with a designer. Sure, this means a writer will need to learn how to deal with stuff left on the cutting room floor, but if you're writing for video games then hopefully you already know enough about the industry for that.