on Jun 10, 2008
In my initial post I praised Flagship for the fantastic intro movie. I was disappointed when I found out later that the movie was outsourced. It’s the most polished and well-executed part of the game, and Flagship Studios didn’t have anything to do with it.
Still, the movie is a good introduction to what seems like an interesting world, and by the time the movie ended I was eager to create a new character and dive into the world of Hellgate.
Third-person looter games are not known for their stories. Most players experienced the plot of Diablo II once, and on their numerous subsequent playthroughs they just clicked past the dialogs and hurried on to the looting and leveling. The same probably goes for games like World of Warcraft. But the story is as much a part of the world as the scenery and music. You couldn’t just cull the entire Diablo plot and backstory without damaging the game. Even when players are hanging around town, swapping items and griping about lag, that story layer is still there underneath everything, lending a certain credibility and purpose to the gameworld. Players want to inhabit an interesting story, even when they aren’t immersed or in character.
But the world of Hellgate is a joke. Literally. The missions you perform and the characters you meet and the dialog you read are all played for laughs. The game is constantly mocking itself, refusing to let the player take it seriously for a minute. It (mostly) doesn’t work as comedy because we don’t know the gameworld yet. It’s like watching Spaceballs before Star Wars, or reading DM of the Rings without knowing anything about Lord of the Rings.
What we have is a game with a dark and thrilling intro movie, which leads the player to where they must face waves of screaming demons and zombies in a ruined world. But every NPC you meet treats the whole thing with contempt, shrugging off the potential for edgy drama in favor of making lame jokes and inappropriate pop-culture references.
Here is a video they’ve put out in preparation for the release of the next patch.
This is mildly humorous, but they’re trying to subvert something they’ve already made into a joke, which is like trying to knock down a pile of rubble. I wouldn’t have minded some occasional levity. The various shopkeepers were a good source of harmless absurdity, and if this brand of odd humor was limited to supporting characters it would have been fine. But the game never stops mugging and joking, so we don’t care about the fate of the central characters any more than we care what happens to the hapless Bob in the video above.
If the creators don’t care about the gameworld, how can the players? And if players don’t care about the gameworld, then why in the hell would they care to inhabit it?
Suggestion: That intro movie was a solid hook. All the game had to do was maintain the same grim, desperate tone. Fallout managed this with about the same ratio of voice acting to silent dialog text, and it worked. You don’t need anything fancy for a game like this, just something that doesn’t sabotage immersion at every turn.
The dialog is poorly delivered.
This is because every sentence is delivered alone.
Instead of giving the player a paragraph to read, it is broken up.
The player must click many, many times.
Each click advances the NPC dialog a little bit.
This spoon-feeds the text to the player.
This would be understandable if we were playing on a handheld or a television.
But here the dialog is in a nice big window with a scrollbar.
There’s plenty of room for all the text.
But it’s broken up anyway.
Which is annoying to read.
It’s like reading a children’s book.
Or a series of fortune cookies written by an idiot.
Sometimes the dialog is tolerable, and sometimes it’s agonizingly bad. At one point the player meets some sort of higher being with the unfortunate name of The Truth. This name isn’t very original, but it’s all the worse for the fact that the same name was given to a paranoid hippie drug addict in one of the Grand Theft Auto games. When the player is talking to a celestial power at one of the first plot points in the game, the last thing you want them thinking about is a crazy stoner voiced by Peter Fonda.
But it’s her dialog that ruins the moment. She’s lamenting the millions of worlds already devoured by the menace facing the Earth, and she does so by going on at length about tears and sorrow and more tears and loss and also sadness. It’s agonizing adolescent emo poetry. Perhaps it was bad on purpose, as part of another unfortunate joke at the expense of the plot, or maybe the writer was engaged in an pathetic attempt to be artful and poetic. (I really hope it’s the former.) In either case, it wasn’t fun to read and wasn’t worth the dozen or so mouse clicks it took to step through it.
The characters rarely have any personality, and those that do are simply cheap props for additional japery at the expense of the setting. There’s Tiberius, the Shatner-talking quest dispenser. There is Lucious Alden, who was purportedly driven “mad” by his torment at the hands of the demons, but the writers seemed to have confused “crazy” with “madcap and zany”. (He sends you on a quest to the City of the Damned, and he remarks that he wanted to name the place, “¡Taco Fort!”) There is Tech 314, who acts as the straight man to Alden’s antics.
Do not mistake the above for character summaries. What I’ve written is everything the game has to tell us about these people. And these are the “interesting” ones.
Suggestion: Despite the reported failings of western education, I don’t think we’ve run out of people who will read a paragraph of text without flinching. Stop screwing around trying to MST3K your own creation and write a little dialog that people will want to read. Dialog, like other game content, is a reward the player will work for if you give them what they want. Work in some details about how the world of Hellgate works, how the people feel, what they want, and what they do besides standing around subway stations waiting for player characters to come along and click on them.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.