I’ve spent the last nine entries explaining the plot of Rage 2 and how I’d have done it differently. We might not agree on what needs to be fixed, but I think we can at least agree, in a broad sense, that it wasn’t very good. I don’t think this was actually a surprise to anyone. Properties created by id software aren’t known for their stories. Developer Avalanche has never been known for their storytelling prowess. And over the last decade publisher Bethesda Softworks has become infamous for making story-heavy games with atrocious and cringeworthy stories. When it comes to storytelling and Rage 2, the publisher doesn’t value it, the developer doesn’t know how to do it, and the fans aren’t expecting it. Frankly, it would have been a miracle if this story turned out to be any good.
So why did I write this series? Why did I waste time whining about a story that was never going to be worth experiencing? Why not just skip the cutscenes like everyone else and move on?
But Nobody Cares About Story!
Over the years I’ve gotten needled by people claiming that story doesn’t matter. Perhaps it started with this famous quote from John Carmack:
“Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”
That thinking seems to be so common that we have a large chunk of gamers who balk at the idea that anyone would care about a story, and take offense when anyone has the audacity to criticize one.
- It’s an online game, so the story doesn’t matter!
- It’s a co-op game, so the story doesn’t matter!
- It’s a shooter, so the story doesn’t matter!
- It’s a platformer, so the story doesn’t matter.
And so on.
While I understand where this thinking comes from, it’s wrong. Just because the story isn’t the focus of the experience doesn’t mean that the story is irrelevant to the experience.
They’re looking at a game with a lame, boring story and comparing it to a hypothetical game with no story whatsoever and concluding that the second one would be better. That’s true, but it misses the point. They should rather be comparing this game with a lame boring story to a hypothetical game with a story that connects emotionally with the audience.
Money is on the Line
While publisher Bethesda Softworks hasn’t shared sales data with us, it’s easy to see that Rage 2 did not do well in terms of reviews. Bafflingly, the PC version is rated higherA few months ago, it was rated 10 points higher. Now I see they’ve leveled out a bit. than the Playstation version on Metacritic, even though the PC version has all the problems of the console version plus all the stability, UI, and performance issues we’ve come to expect from Bethesda’s recent PC ports.
The scores are in the 63 to 73 range, which is the critical equivalent of a shrug or a halfhearted clap. The game vanished from the conversation just a few weeks after release and not even the post-launch updates managed to get the game back into the news.
My point here – and the reason I wrote this entire series – is that I think the slapdash writing is what killed this game. I realize this claim comes off as horribly self-serving. Of course a writer like me would assume that if the team had just hired the right writer the project could have been magically saved.
The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with Rage 2 in terms of mechanics. I’ve certainly seen many games with far less interesting gameplay that scored much higher. The gameplay is really good by the standards of the genre. It’s really fun to rush an enemy, slam into them, and shatter their armor so the pieces fly in every direction. It’s incredibly satisfying to leap up in the air to create a black hole that pulls in all your foes, then slam back down and turn them all into paste. It’s hilarious to tag one foe with the fire pistol, then literally snap your fingers to ignite them with a fire that will spread to anyone else nearby. The super-running is exhilarating, the car combat is pretty cool, and the double-jumping is… Well, it’s double jumping, you know? That’s basically always fun.
The art is pretty good and the team did a great job of getting a lot of different environments – badlands, swamp, jungle, rocky wastes, etc – into the game and making it visually plausible. The marketing grabbed everyone’s attention. The vocal performances are solid, and the animations are fine. Sure, the game has some bugs, but the Rage 2 bug list is nothing compared to the swarms of bugs unleashed by sister studio Bethesda.
The only thing wrong with this game is the narrative. The game leads off with 20 minutes of tedious cutscenes, and those 20 minutes create a horrible first impression.
I can’t prove it, but I really do believe that a wittier version of Rage 2 would have fared much better on the sales charts. If the story didn’t get in the way so much at the start of the game, then people would have gotten to the fun combat sooner. If there were a few well-drawn characters in this world, we could have connected with them and come to care about their struggles.
In the grand scheme of things, Doom 2016 wasn’t that cleverIn terms of story. There’s a lot that can be said about the gameplay, but that topic would need a series of its own. . It had one good joke that it told a half dozen or so different ways. But those moments were charming enough to be memorable and to encourage the player to press forward for the next one. People are still talking about the moment where the Doom GuyOr if you must, the “Doom Slayer”. Ugh. smashed a computer console like an angry child. That scene wasn’t long, complex, deep, or profound. It was just a funny surprise. That brief moment of charm was enough that people are still talking about it four years later.
Like I keep saying: You don’t need a lot of story, you just need to make sure the story you do have is solid.
The problem with Rage 2 is that the story didn’t offer any emotional engagement. It’s an open world game that can’t get us to care about the world.
Story is The Fuel of Engagement
Think back to the lobby gunfight in The Matrix. It’s a fantastic scene and it works just fine as a showcase of cinematography, choreography, stunts, and special effects. Someone who’s never seen The Matrix could watch that scene and have a fun three minutes watching the fireworks.
But that scene becomes massively more impactful when shown in context, because the story has done a tremendous job of establishing characters, creating stakes, generating empathy, and maintaining suspense. We know Neo and Trinity are walking into the very heart of the enemy stronghold. We know that nobody has even dreamed of doing something this crazy before. The life of their friend and mentor is on the line, and by choosing to rescue him they create a situation where all three of them could die, and the rebellion would be crushed foreverWe’re ignoring the change in perspective brought about by the sequels, because a first-time viewer of The Matrix wouldn’t have that information. Also those movies aren’t very good, despite their lofty intentions.. We know they’re up against impossible odds, but we also know that Neo might have some sort of extraordinary ability. We’re worried about the characters, we’re curious about the opposition they’re going to face, and we’re looking forward to the reveal of what Neo’s deal is.
People watch the scene and they talk about how exciting that fight was, but they overlook how they were already on the edge of their seat when the fight started. The fight didn’t create tension, it was a payoff for tension that already existed thanks to all the setup in the previous scenes. The action scene gets the attention, but a lot of the magic of that scene is the result of the excellent setup provided by all those “boring” talky scenes.
Think of the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. The fight choreography and special effects aren’t nearly as impressive as the fan-made Ryan vs. Dorkman 2, but that doesn’t matter. RvD2 is a charming little demo of micro-budget technical prowess, but it doesn’t have the huge emotional punch of seeing Luke cross sabers with his father for the last time.
Typically, the big exciting action scene gets credit for creating the excitement, but the real root of those successful moments stretches back to the non-action scenes where the writer spent the time crafting characters and motivations that pulled us in and made us care. That’s the main reason that so many people can actually find themselves bored at a Michel Bay film despite the brilliant choreography, solid stunt work, top-notch computer FX, energetic cinematographyNotwithstanding Mr. Bay’s horrendous penchant for shaky-cam., and wonderful practical effects that go into them. It’s all sizzle and no bacon.
We have the same problem in video games. People talk about how fights are “tense” or “exciting”. The gameplay ends up stealing credit for things the writer set up.
I know it’s hard to envision a Rage game where people care about the world and the characters, but it is possible and I’m convinced it would propel the series to greater success. Not only that, but I think that a well-written version of Rage 2 would have been a best-seller. The only problem with this game is the writer’s complete inability to engage the player on an emotional level despite the cutscene-heavy design. The player doesn’t care about the characters or the world, which means the gameplay falls flat. A boss fight isn’t thrilling when it’s bookended by cutscenes that ruin the mood. The game ends up showing people I don’t care about, struggling against villains I can’t take seriously, to save a world that doesn’t feel real in the first place.
Writing is hard on an individual level, but on a financial level it’s one of the easiest things a team has to tackle. Based on the end credits of games over the years, the writing staff is typically minuscule compared to the groups of programmers and armies of artists required to bring a game to market on a AAA scale. Designing a big-budget game atop a sophomoric script is like building a mansion on a pile of sand.
Dear publishers: Please put the same time and attention into your scripts that you put into the graphics, environments, marketing, character designs, weapons, and gameplay. It really does matter. Not just artistically, but to your bottom line. Hire people who know how to write, and hire people that can appraise the resulting work. Literally millions of dollars are at stake here.
Thanks so much for reading.
 A few months ago, it was rated 10 points higher. Now I see they’ve leveled out a bit.
 In terms of story. There’s a lot that can be said about the gameplay, but that topic would need a series of its own.
 Or if you must, the “Doom Slayer”. Ugh.
 We’re ignoring the change in perspective brought about by the sequels, because a first-time viewer of The Matrix wouldn’t have that information. Also those movies aren’t very good, despite their lofty intentions.
 Notwithstanding Mr. Bay’s horrendous penchant for shaky-cam.
The Gradient of Plot Holes
Most stories have plot holes. The failure isn't that they exist, it's when you notice them while immersed in the story.
Trashing the Heap
What does it mean when a program crashes, and why does it happen?
Mass Effect Retrospective
A novel-sized analysis of the Mass Effect series that explains where it all went wrong. Spoiler: It was long before the ending.
The Disappointment Engine
No Man's Sky is a game seemingly engineered to create a cycle of anticipation and disappointment.
This Game is Too Videogame-y
What's wrong with a game being "too videogameish"?