It’s pretty common for games to use the “the bad guy shows up at the end of the tutorial to murder your family / village”, and I’m usually very critical of it. It’s a brute-force approach to the problem of making the player care about the villain. It’s a cheap and easy tool for writers who aren’t deft enough to wield the more subtle tools of world-building and characterization. I might not know how to make a victim NPC that you will care about or relate to, but I bet I can provoke some sort of response from you if I make the NPC victim YOUR MOTHER!
RAGE does not have this problem. RAGE has the opposite problem. RAGE never bothers to make us care about the bad guys at all. The bad guys in this case are called “The Authority” and they are opposed by “The Resistance”. Now, RAGE (You know what? I’m done typing the name of this game in all caps. Correct or not, it’s just too shouty.) takes place on a wasteland Earth after an asteroid apocalypse. The world is smashed and most people aren’t even literate. It’s completely valid to have simplistic names for your factions like this, provided they’re suitably interesting. But the agendas of these two sides are just as generic and shallow as their names.
Even going into the final battle, I still didn’t feel anything towards my adversaries. Oh sure, the people you meet will tell you that the authority is bad and that you should stay away from them, but only in vague, non-specific ways. It’s not that the writer broke the “show, don’t tell” rule. This is an even worse problem, where we’re not even told why we should hate them. I can’t recall a single character who named some specific hardship, loss, or setback caused by The Authority.
In fact, most of the visible problems in this world are caused by bandits. Bandits regularly attack and kill settlers. (It’s not clear where the bandits come from. 100% of non-settlers are men, so it seems like this problem should have sorted itself out a while ago. But whatever.) They’re a danger to you and they’re a danger to the other settlers. Fighting the Authority while bandits are on the loose is like mowing the lawn while your house is burning down.
The idea is that some people were put into suspended animation in great underground arks. A hundred years later, you emerge to find this savage frontier. Eventually you learn that one of your fellow ark-people had hijacked the program. General Martin Cross set his own ark to emerge early, and he used his pre-asteroid tech to nominally seize control of society. We learn that other ark survivors tend to join up with this guy.
We’re never told why Cross did this. Is he crazy? Did he just see an opportunity to make himself king of the world? Does he think he’s the only one that can make sure humanity survives? Are we dealing with a misguided man like Wallace Breen, or a crazy evil asshole like Lucien Fairfax? The game doesn’t tell us.
Heck, I could make a good case for The Authority being the good guys:
- The other ark survivors sign up with The Authority. These are civilized people from the Old World, so they must have some reason for trusting Cross.
- You break into an Authority prison to save a member of the resistance, who you find to be fed and healthy. He doesn’t seem to have been tortured or mistreated. Heck, they have feral mutants in jail cells, and those things are mindless chaotic evil. Talk about being against the death penalty. I think even the most gentle hippie can sleep at night after blowing away some mutants.
- The Authority rolls into town late in the game and seems to take over. They don’t hurt anyone. They don’t take any property. They don’t disrupt business. The only thing they do is make off with the mayor, and he’s an obviously evil scumbag who jerks you around for his own benefit.
- Aside from that one incident with the mayor, you never encounter The Authority except when you’re invading their turf. So The Authority is better at minding their own business than the player.
Of course, The Authority is evil, because the game says so. There’s also a plot about how they’re behind the production of mutants. That’s pretty bad, although we don’t know why, or what their goals are, or how producing mutants might advance those goals. By the end of the game I didn’t want to kill the authority. I just wanted to swing by, talk to them, and hear their side of the story.
The dialog in this game is really loose. It’s a bit too wordy and lacking in color. I found myself wanting to re-write bits of it, just to inject some flavor into it. The model designs are colorful, interesting, and varied, but the words coming out of their mouths are flat, numerous, and obvious.
Consider this bit of dialog:
You’re part of the old world, not part of their new world. Of course, there are people who stand up against them, not many of them. They call themselves the Resistance. Not that I profess to have any special knowledge of them.
Now, it’s always important to trim your writing down to the essentials. This is doubly important when you’re dealing with spoken dialog. If the character keeps talking after the player has gotten the idea, the player is going to get impatient. They will start smacking the “skip” key, because they sense the game is wasting their time. Consider my re-write:
You’re not part of their new world. Of course, a few people stand up against them. They call themselves the Resistance. (Beat.) Not that I would know anything about that.
Note that I didn’t remove any of the exposition, I just tightened it up. That trim would make this second reading shorter by several seconds. Now, if I were the writer I would take that space I just saved and use it to play around with the “brilliant eccentric” character concept they’ve got going here. Maybe throw in some humor or a bit of character flavor. The point is, writing spoken dialog is an exercise in efficiency, and if the same artistry was given to the words as to the character designs, this would have been dynamite.
I know it seems silly to beat up on an id Software game for the story, but that’s only because we’ve never played an id game with great writing and it’s not always obvious just how much we’re missing. I think if we ever played one where the storytelling was on par with the visuals, we’d never want to go back.
As the game becomes more visually authentic it becomes harder to ignore lackluster writing. When your NPCs stop being gameplay abstractions and become fully realized characters, then they need things like coherent motivation and engaging dialog. Otherwise your visuals are only going to make your writing seem that much worse.
Crysis 2 has basically the same plot as Half-Life 2. So why is one a classic and the other simply obnoxious and tiresome?
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