Stolen Pixels #183: Hello, Handsome

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Apr 6, 2010

Filed under: Column 65 comments

Why do we have to keep liking games in spite of their stories? I know the conventional wisdom is that the industry doesn’t tend to financially reward good storytellers, but that’s no reason to hold the story in obvious contempt. There’s a difference between, “we’re not going to go out of our way to make an incredible story” and “we won’t even make the slight effort to devise a story which is worth seeing and makes some kind of sense”. The cutscenes in Red Faction: Guerrilla are a waste of time. Unless they were designed to be mocked in comics. In which case I guess they’re a middling success.

I will point out that the final two developers in the March Mayhem contest are both companies with strong writing: BioWare and Valve. (And yes, Valve has strong writing. Not a lot of writing. Their games are mostly action. But if characters are talking you can bet they’re saying something worth hearing.) I still maintain the writing is more important than developers think it is, and that Red Faction: Monkeytown could have been a much bigger hit with the exact same budget and setting, but with a writer who knew what they were doing. (In fact, you could probably improve the game just by doing a reverse-Mystery Science Theater and dub over their ridiculous dialog with something smart and genuine.)


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65 thoughts on “Stolen Pixels #183: Hello, Handsome

  1. Jamey Johnston says:

    Do you feel vindicated? I sort of do, for you :)

  2. Varil says:

    Man, you kill someone and they get all LAZY on you. Can’t get ’em to do anything.

  3. Doc Kirzner says:

    In some ways, this mirrors the quality of other action blockbusters. The bad guys are stupidly evil because someone has to be, motivations are ill defined, and protagonist and villain alike are more caricatures than characters.

    For example, Avatar. And it grossed 2.7 billion dollars.

    “Sir, should we spring 120 grand for a three man writing team?”

    “Nah, that could buy us at least another few frames of CGI spectacle.”

    1. Irridium says:

      Which is why I rarely ever go to movies anymore.

    2. cassander says:

      Avatar is the way it is because, deep down, James Cameron doesn’t seem to really care what his characters say. He cares a great deal about how they say it, how they look while they say it, and what happens to them between them saying things, but nothing at all about the actual content of his stories. I find this attitude bizarre, but then I didn’t just make a movie that made 3 billion dollars…

    3. Moridin says:

      Must be why I prefer reading to other forms of entertainment.

    4. AR says:

      Ironically, though, some of the background of Avatar is exceptionally well written. The interstellar ships are one of the best examples, being an very plausible design based on proposed real world spacecraft. They did their physics homework on this one.

      Even the floating islands aren’t as ridiculous as they might seem. If room temperature superconductors naturally existed in sufficient concentration, that could indeed happen due to flux pinning.

      1. Yar Kramer says:

        You know, one of the effects of exposing myself to so much sci-fi is that I’m so jaded by technobabble that my immediate response is “What? You mean ‘flux’ is an actual word? That means things?”

        1. lazlo says:

          Sometimes reality is too cool to be believable. Read about an explosively pumped flux compression generator. It sounds like an integral part of the starship enterprise, but in reality it can be used to generate very short pulses of terrawatts of power. Using explosions.

          At some point, the future got here and we didn’t notice.

          1. Tizzy says:

            At some point, the future got here and we didn't notice.

            Probably because we’re still waiting for our jetpacks…

            1. KremlinLaptop says:

              Flying cars. Hover boots. Nuclear-powered toothbrush…

              1. Jarenth says:

                Ray guns.

                1. guy says:

                  Israel uses lasers to shoot down MRLS rockets…

        2. Garden Ninja says:

          I remember my High School physic teacher blowing my mind when we got to electronics and he told us the derivation of flux capacitor:

          Flux = Change
          Capacitor = Something that stores stuff

          So a Flux Capacitor stores change. I suppose if they wanted to get even more techno-babbly, they could have called it a “Temporal Flux Capacitor”.

          (edit: Clearly, there is some handwaving involved. I don’t remember the definition now, and the Wikipedia article is rather technical, but suffice to say that “flux” is a bit more than just “change”)

    5. guy says:

      Erm, the villains of Avatar were actually hampered by not being evil, which is why the planet was not a radioactive cinder. They were admittedly a tad stupid, though.

    6. I’m not really following the complaint here. Avatar’s bad guys wear their motivations on their sleeves. Their actions made strategic and tactical sense in terms of accomplishing the goals they were pursuing. And about the only mistake they made was in not believing that the crazy hippies could actually talk to the trees.

      Avatar did not have a terribly original plot. But the execution of that plot was tight and well-written.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        Yeah,but all they wanted was to eliminate the natives and leave the unobtanium for mining.We already have a weapon that can do that on a massive scale:A neutron bomb.If they trully were evil,they would just wipe the planet clean,and then send in drones to mine.Why waste manpower?

        1. guy says:

          Because that would:

          a) Require the villans to be more evil than they were.
          b) Get everyone in the company executed for crimes against humanity.

          The thing is, the villans didn’t actually want to kill all or even many of the natives. That’s why they flooded the tree with tear gas, then collapsed it instead of flooding it with mustard gas and gunning down anyone who tried to escape.

  4. JKjoker says:

    i remember the thing that pissed me off the most out of RFG was one mission where you need to kill some “guys” meeting in a huge skyscrapper so i thought : “hmm, super-rocket-launcher,check, disintegration rifle, check, lets bring that building down before they can notice me!” only to find out that you cant … you see that particular building is made out of undestructonium or something, it takes a nuke to dent the side and you can not destroy it

    also i always found very weird that disintegrating obvious support columns does not bring buildings down… strange

    1. Davin Valkri says:

      Actually you can destroy it–there are a few supports targetable from the outside which can be disintegrated. Don’t bother actually walking on-site and getting the enemies riled up–just find a nice view, disintegrate those supports, and watch the top of the building come crashing down.

  5. Drexer says:

    “(In fact, you could probably improve the game just by doing a reverse-Mystery Science Theater and dub over their ridiculous dialog with something smart and genuine.)”

    Ain’t that called a Let’s Play? :P

    I truly hate games that seem to make an effort to get the story in when they should just leave it out. Specially when it’s totally perpendicular to the action and you can’t just skip it.

  6. 4th Dimension says:

    Bah. Of all the sequels, RF original is still the best.

  7. Zeta Kai says:

    Yeah, many of the best games in recent history had great stories to go along with them: Final Fantasy X, Silent Hill 2, Portal, Braid, Psychonauts, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum. I’ve never understood why game developers so often blow their whole budget on making pixels do insanely beautiful sparkly things & crafting concept art that rivals Hollywood’s best sci-fi, but then they use it all to tell a story that wouldn’t hold up well in a porno flick. Resident Evil 5 was a drop-dead gorgeous game, & it played pretty well, too. But the storyline was past idiotic, going all the way to insulting. Sure, you don’t need a plotline to have a great game. Puzzle game get along just fine without them, as do all the Madden sporto clones. but if there’s gonna be ANY story in there, then it’d better be good.

    Here’s an extended analogy. The story is an ingredient in the soup that is a game. There are other ingredients in the soup, too, like art, sound, gameplay, & controls. Some are vital, some are more important than others, & they all change the way the soup tastes. It’d be ideal to have all the best ingredients possible if you’re gonna have the best game-soup. Not have any story at all may make the soup bland, or even tasteless, but in the right game/soup, it may not be necessary.

    But no soup tastes good when you put crap in it.

    1. Soylent Dave says:

      Resident Evil 5 was a drop-dead gorgeous game, & it played pretty well, too. But the storyline was past idiotic, going all the way to insulting.

      To be fair, no Resident Evil game has exactly had a brilliant storyline.

      Some of them have slightly less atrocious acting/dialogue than others, though.

      1. Neil Polenske says:

        I would go so far as to say part of their charm is the ‘small bus’ plots.

  8. Irridium says:

    I know how to get great stories in games. Take some of the millions of dollars from the “epic graphics” budget, and hire some actual damn writers and decent voice actors.

    Not all games need a serious story to be fun, and I would actually hate it if all games had serious storys, but don’t try to tell me your game is serious when the story sucks so hard.

  9. Factoid says:

    I generally agree with you. I WISH red faction guerilla had a better story…but honestly the gameplay so was much fun I never wanted to stop just because the story was bad.

    I will play Devil’s Advocate, though, and argue that in the hands of a good writer there’s no reason we would ever have a mission where a random crazy dude with a home made tank comes to pick you up and then you run around blowing up builidings that mostly re-appear as soon as the mission is over.

    Most of the fun elements in this game don’t serve any story purpose…except for the EDF raid and defense missions, which I found to be the most dull and boring of them all…but that’s the stuff that actually means something in a Guerilla war. Raids on enemy outposts, defending a village against an onslaught…but somehow I had more fun doing the random “hit object with hammer” missions.

    I think they really wanted to go more tongue-in-cheek with this game. They wanted it to be ridiculous and fun and implausible, but were probably told they needed to attach it to an existing franchise and the Red Faction IP demands a certain serious tone.

    My best guess is that the writing is the result of too many business compromises. This shouldn’t have been a Red Faction game at all. It should have been Sammy Sledgehammer Goes To Mars.

  10. CaroCogitatus says:

    Don’t forget that by using development resources to create more UltraMegaPixelRasterVectorBlingMap 9.7 graphics sparklies instead of good story writing, they are actually reducing the number of consumers who have the insane computing power to buy the game, even if they wanted to.

    How can they not get that?

    1. Yar Kramer says:

      Read Dilbert for a few weeks. Pretend his company is a video game publisher. Keep in mind that, while some elements are comically exaggerated, and Catbert and the pointy-haired boss cheerfully and openly inform the employees that they’re screwing them over, it isn’t much of an exaggeration about what actually happens.

      You will never be surprised by a company’s stupidity again.

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Ill tell you how:When fallout 3 came out,I decided to check out user reviews.What I came across first,was a review from someone giving the graphics 2/10 because it is “so outdated”.The rest of the first hand reviews from consumers werent much better,giving it an average of 5/10.Those first consumers that buy the game for full price are actually idiots that care only for SHINY PIXULZ!

  11. WCG says:

    I think storytelling is, in general, the wrong direction for games. Movies are linear and passive, so they’re great vehicles for telling a story. But games aren’t movies, not even close. And the linearity needed for telling a story conflicts with letting players make meaningful choices in the game (not just a handful of different paths to the same end, but real choices, real decisions, that make no two plays of the game exactly alike).

    I want a game with a great setting, a plausible-seeming world (“plausible” meaning that NPCs act in ways that make sense, given the premise of the gameworld), and the freedom of choice that allows me to create my own “story” in the way I play the game. I think that RPGs, at least, should focus on story-creation, rather than story-telling.

    So far, mainstream game development seems to be trying to imitate the movie industry. But there are a few independent game developers who are just beginning to take a new path. I’m thinking of Dwarf Fortress, primarily, but there are other games which seem to be working in that direction, too – Aurora, Mount&Blade, UnReal World, etc. We’re only in the very beginning of such work, but I really do think it’s the future of gaming.

    1. Yar Kramer says:

      I disagree. Just because lots of video games do the “storytelling” thing badly, and the medium as a whole has potential for a whole lot more, doesn’t mean they should all go the way of “story-building.” It’s like saying “You shouldn’t eat dessert of any description ever, because you really ought to eat healthy food” (because a little dessert now and then tastes great, and i.e. mom’s homemade apple pie is perfectly healthy). In particular, imagine “story-building” in the inept hands of the writer for Red Faction: Guerilla.

      Just look at Bioshock, Portal, and the Half-Life family: the games are linear as heck, there’s no meaningful way the player can affect the story, and they’re pretty much all highly lauded throughout the industry for their storytelling and writing. Would Bioshock or Portal or Half-Life 2 have been improved if they’d continuously allowed the player to make huge, story-changing decisions that could affect the entire narrative? (Answer: well, I don’t think they would have. Half-Life 2‘s story worked just fine, in Portal it would have been kind of silly to try, and in Bioshock, apart from the fact that “get good end” and “get bad end” amounted to one choice presented to you several times, would you kindly remember that the linearity of the story was part of the plot …)

      I’m not saying that the “story-building” aspect isn’t valid. I mean, trying to force a linear story onto Dwarf Fortress would have potentially deprived the world of Boatmurdered, for one thing. I’m just saying it’s not the only valid choice.

    2. Rob Maguire says:

      I just recently found the MMO Wurm Online, which is somewhat like what you describe. It’s basically a 16k^2 chunk of geography the devs gave the players, along with some tools to shape the world themselves. Everything in the world – aside from some portals and a single-digit number of NPCs to help newbies – is player created. That massive village next to the newbie area? Months of hard work between dozens of players. Factions? Might be supported by the devs, but the players put them together. Every simple tool has several steps in its creation, meaning things actually have a value besides ‘5 coins’ (and many trades are done in barter rather than coin because of this). I’ve never seen anything like this before in a multiplayer environment (well, the Cube engine had terraforming, and Garry’s Mod had the tools, this just kind of… combines the two), and it’s awesome. It finally feels like an MMO has caught up to the freedom of the MUDs they replaced 15 years ago.

      Of course, it’s not an RPG, really. It’s a ‘fantasy world simulator’, in the vein of Dwarf Fortress – meaning you need to eat, drink, forage, etc. Except this one’s in real-time. It takes about an hour for a newbie to mine one meter into a rock face to create a small cave. I spent eight hours yesterday getting my newbie ready to build a 1×1 meter shed to live in, and didn’t come close to finishing. But this is a good thing, as it really forces you to join the community to get things done.

      Don’t take my word for it, though. Rock, Paper, Shotgun did an excellent Let’s Play-like article on it here.

      1. WCG says:

        That RPS play-thru of Wurm Online is neat, but I don’t think that multiplay works very well for the story-creation kinds of games I had in mind. The problem is that players generally play like gamers, not like human beings in that particular game setting. Ironically, well-crafted NPCs with good AI would behave more realistically. It might be somewhat different – though not entirely – if you had nothing but role-players, but that’s not going to happen.

        Hmm,… but Solium Infernum, though a completely different kind of game, might work OK in that, simply because playing like a gamer is pretty much what prospective lords of Hell WOULD do. I mean, the mythology just fits that kind of behavior, at least to some extent (but there’s no fear, of course, since you’re just playing a game, so that would make some difference).

    3. krellen says:

      No thanks. There’s too much push towards the “sandbox” model already. The last thing I want to see is a complete transition there.

      Until we’ve got AI capable of making long-reaching and diverse decisions on par with a human director, sandbox games just aren’t the way to go. I’ll keep my sandbox offline, with my group of friends, and continue relying on game designers to make good “Choice Your Own Adventure” style things to play in the meantime.

      1. Ramsus says:

        If nobody ever works on it we’ll never get to the point where we have AI’s that do that. Sure we’ll end up with AI’s capable of it but there will have been no interest in the concept of making them do those things for so long that nobody will bother to do it.

        I don’t see the need for us to have one or the other style. Even in the same game. Having as many people come up with as many different things as possible will result in better games. We’ll learn what works for what producing better games of certain kinds and then hopefully clever people will decide they don’t accept that certain things don’t work and come up with a better way of doing those things. Also I would get kind bored of games if they were all either completely sandbox, completely linear, or a mix. I want my variety.

      2. Daemian Lucifer says:

        It is sad that the best sandbox game still is fallout 1.Sure,there is a story,and it is a good one,but you can do it in zillions of ways.And what you do makes a huge impact on the game.But its the sheer range of choices that makes the game perfect.You can be a hero,a child murderer,a dumb brute,genius assassin,anything you want.13 years,and there still isnt a single game as good as it is.

        1. krellen says:

          This fact may be precisely why I so hate sandbox games now. I’ve seen the gold standard and it’s been all downhill since.

          1. Shamus says:

            You should try Fallout 3.

            1. Shamus says:

              Obvious troll is obvious.

              1. Factoid says:

                Tautological statement is tautological

            2. krellen says:

              Don’t worry, Shamus, I know you know me better than that. :D

  12. Dev Null says:

    There's a difference between, “we're not going to go out of our way to make an incredible story” and “we won't even make the slight effort to devise a story which is worth seeing and makes some kind of sense”.

    And then there’s “we’re going out of our way to make a bad story” which is the bit that annoys the bejeezus out of me. Don’t want to waste a couple of grand on a writer? No worries; leave the story _out_. But don’t subcontract it to the non-English-speaking janitorial staff.

    Sadly, however, I don’t think the writing sucks in these games because they were too cheap to pay a writer. I think the lead technical programmer and the marketing director honestly believe that they can write just fine themselves, so why bring someone else in to do it?

    1. Teldurn says:

      “I think the lead technical programmer and the marketing director honestly believe that they can write just fine themselves, so why bring someone else in to do it?”

      Of course they would! Anyone who’s taken English in college might usually feel they know enough about language to write well enough for a videogame. I mean, it’s not a movie, right?

      But naturally, the difference between bad writing and good writing is usually found in the nuances, and those are the hardest to get right, let alone to know in the first place.

    2. Doc Kirzner says:

      Your analysis isn’t far off, Dev Null.

      IMDB lists Drew Holmes as the only writer for Red Faction: Guerrilla.

      He’s got a theater degree from U of Illinois: Urbana, then worked as a game tester at Volition. Did a dash of writing on Saints Row 2 (under a lead writer) then was handed the job of writing the script for Red Faction: Guerrilla.

  13. Zombie Pete says:

    I haven’t played Red Faction, but the comic reminded me of Ten Commandments, which they always show this time of year. Pharaoh gets pissed at Moses and his labor force, the Hebrews. So, to get back at them he tells them to make bricks without straw… But those are HIS bricks! WTF? That didn’t make sense to me even as a kid.

    See also starving of recalcitrant labor at the big, magic tower thingy in Fable II.

    1. Atarlost says:

      The goal of having people make bricks without straw isn’t to get more bricks, it’s to keep them too busy to rebel and give you an excuse to punish them for failing to do the impossible.

      In general you don’t work people to death because you want work to get done, but because you want them dead.

      The actions described in the strip make sense if the goal is not to extract resources from Mars, but to depopulate it to make room for loyal Terrans.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        Thats just a sadistically stupid thing to do.Nazies at least did medical experiments on jews,so it wasnt just fun and extermination.Confiscating tools from slaves and then making them continue working is just being a sadist.And an idiot.You wont pacify them,you wont get any decent work done,and you wont exterminate the slaves.Youll just lose time and make the slaves even more keen to revolt.

  14. Tizzy says:

    You know what? I can’t imagine writers cost that much either. Excellent ones must, for sure, but I’m sure there’s plenty of very competent ones out there who’d be happy to hire out their services for cheap…

    As for Valve, I wouldn’t hesitate to call them writing heavy. There’s more to the writing than lines of dialogue, and ever since HL2, I’ve felt the presence of the writers, whether its certain scenes or the background material. There’s no doubt these guys are hard at work, all the harder since they want to keep their touch light.

    1. Mari says:

      You might be surprised by how expensive a writer is. Average rate of pay runs somewhere in the neighborhood of $60-150 per MINUTE of script.

      1. Tizzy says:

        That may be because so many shows/movies/games have only a few minutes of actual script.

        Joking aside, I have no idea how writers are compensated, and that’s a good question: if you’re developing some kind of intellectual property (something with staying power, that will give rise to more than just one movie), how can you measure and adequately compensate for the work when most of it will not end up on screen?

      2. Daemian Lucifer says:

        But arent those guild writers?You can always hire a freelancer that will do a better job for less,right?Or is there some law that requires you to use a guild writer?

        Also,I dont think every country has writers guilds,nor are these things that well regulated,so you can do it much cheaper(russia,for example).

        1. silver Harloe says:

          There’s no escaping the guild. They control all the interstellar transport, and thus effectively control access to spice (at least secondary access to spice). So you pretty much have to do what they want.

      3. Blackbird71 says:

        Even so, on the high end that’s only $18,000 for a two-hour script. If you strip away the hours of plain gameplay from the typical game and just add up the dialogue and plot points, I doubt that you’re left with more story than youre average movie. And how much are these companies spending on graphics development again? Seriously, reuse last year’s engine and put some cash towards a decent writer.

  15. equinox216 says:

    To further support the idea that Valve is writing-strong, I’d put forward that things that aren’t dialogue, like the |barn/radio station| that gets shelled by the headcrab rocket, or that lone house along the drive path with the excavated basement, can count as writing, and therefore as strong writing. There’s not really any “technical” part of those encounters that’s particularly innovative; the situations are rendered dramatic and effective through use of good staging, not technology.

    1. Tesh says:

      Telling a story without telling a story is a fine art. Most don’t bother with it.

    2. I agree. There’s more to good writing and good storytelling than dialogue.

  16. Lalaland says:

    I think the problem is that we haven’t evolved a way to describe or sell games that have no narrative. Everything enjoyable about the game can be boiled down to ‘blowing stuff up is fun’ but they lacked the confidence to just let players do that and so shoe horned in a mission structure that forces you experience the rubbish plot.

    Just Cause 2 is just as bad but the mission structure is such that I haven’t had to engage the plot at all to enjoy the blowing of stuff up. I’ve done 2 story missions in 30 odd hours of gameplay and it hasn’t hindered my enjoyment of the game at all. Perhaps because their promo materials emphasised this kind of gameplay over their plot I don’t feel that the story weaknesses detract from the game for me. The plot was silly and the mission design is largely formulaic but because rewards aren’t tied to missions I can just ignore the games failings and enjoy what works. RFG forced you to constantly engage the plot to move on to blowing more stuff up the crap plot would have been less annoying if it wasn’t constantly pushed in your face.

  17. Axle says:

    I think that a game can be a great way to tell a story, but most developers use the story as an excuse to move things forward and the result, in too many cases, is terrible.
    The other problem (mainly with RPGs) is that they put too much effort in creating a story and telling it in the same time. And the end result is something that disappoints both gamers that expect a good story and the ones that wants more freedom.
    Dragon age is a good example for a game that should have sacrificed freedom of choice for a better and bigger story and fallout 3 is an example for a game that could have been much better without the main plot. IMO at least..

    I think that the big problem is that game producers want to sell as many copies as possible so they aim for every direction they can think of instead of focusing on a fewer concepts.

    The only recent game I can think of that did a good job in telling a story with a pinch of a choice is the witcher. There is a great story in there, it’s completely linear but on the way you can make some difficult choices that will affect the way the story is told but not the story itself.

  18. Maldeus says:

    “In fact, you could probably improve the game just by doing a reverse-Mystery Science Theater and dub over their ridiculous dialog with something smart and genuine.”

    I think you just gave me a new mission in life, Shamus.

  19. Lalaland says:

    Might be a bit late to post this but it’s an interesting take on some of the challenges they faced in making RFG. Basically what it boils down to is how do I integrate linear story telling when my players can complete things in a non-linear manner.

  20. This March Mayhem thing looks like it exists solely as a social media marketing scam, to get you to associate your facebook with their site… they even give you an “extra vote” if you also associate your twitter with their site. And the page tries to run javascript from not only itself, but TEN other domains. Literally TEN.

    Yay the escapist. I can’t knock you for wanting a paycheck… money is good… but man are these guys annoying -_-

  21. David W says:

    Shamus’ explanation of the escalation of threat finally explained to me why Darth Vader’s arrival at the Death Star in Return of the Jedi was such a powerful scene. In maybe 2 minutes of onscreen time, Lucas escalates the threat twice – first, to our known nasty character, Vader who kills anyone who fails, relentless, skilled, strong in the Force, who’s nearly killed our heroes several times already without them ever posing much risk to him. Remember, the successful ending in Empire Strikes Back was ‘we escaped with only one hero captured and one hero maimed’.

    Second, we have the mysterious Emperor, who’s been offscreen, but ‘The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am’. It’s interesting to realize how much less effective this scene would be if we didn’t know Vader, or if we had only the Emperor and not our known villain.

  22. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I too hate the trend of slapping stories on simple shooters.At least make it so that you can ignore it.A simple skip cutscene button and all the problems are gone.It worked for dom,serius sam(and interesting title for a game that is so not serius)and painkiller.Just you,some weapons,and a bunch of dudes to murder.The story is there just for the heck of it,and you can always skip it if you dont care(which no one does).It works.Use it.

    PS:Oh,and prototype is of the same variety.There is a story,you can consume bunch of guys to learn it,or you can just fly around and punch tanks into oblivion.You dont have to watch dumb naration if you dont want to.Though the story in prototype is a tad decent,and it even has a nice twist.

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