Everyone just expects that this is how things will be: A big budget multiplayer-focused shooter has a single-player campaign that nobody cares about and nobody expects anything from. Reviewers play it, shrug, and then say “Sure, it’s not great, but this game is all about the multiplayer!”
Which is true enough. But it’s sort of baffling how reliably these stories come up empty. It’s clearly not for lack of budget. Millions of dollars are spent on these campaigns. The acting talent is there, because you’ve usually got big-name voice performers in the lead roles. The story isn’t undercut by glitches, harmed by lack of exposition (quite the contrary) or bogged down by an impenetrable plot. It’s usually aiming to be a bombastic action movie, and yet these games never seem to connect with the audience even on that basic level. They can’t even attain the brute-force emotional engagement of (say) Guardians of the Galaxy, District 9, or the Bourne Identity, even though none of those movies had particularly lofty goals.
So what’s going on here? Developers are trying so hard to imitate the language of cinema. Why do their stories keep striking out?
I think Titanfall 2 provides a pretty clear answer to this question. It seems to have all of the ingredients of a typical action blockbuster, and yet after five hours of lavish spectacle it comes up feeling empty and shallow. Let’s look at why…
Titanfall 2 takes place in a far-flung space-future where the IMC (the bad guys) are fighting the militia (the good guys). It’s a pretty standard remix of space marine stories of the past, except that in this universe there are a small number of super-capable soldiers who get to become “pilots”. They form a neural link with a two-story robot buddy. Even without the help of their pet robot, a pilot can usually single-handedly dominate a conventional battlefield. They can drive the mech around and blow stuff up, or they can get out and let the robot fight autonomously while they parkour their way through enemy forces like a mix between the Prince of Persia and Neo.
In the game you play as Jack Cooper, a lowly rifleman. Pilot Lastimosa has taken Cooper under his wing, sure that Cooper will make for a great pilot someday. Lastimosa teaches Cooper in his off-time, even bending the rules to make sure that Cooper gets the training he needs.
In the first mission of the game, Lastimosa is mortally wounded. Just before he dies, he makes Cooper a pilot by handing over control of BT, his robot-buddy. So half-trained Cooper has to team up with the overly literal BT to complete the mission. Along the way they uncover the plans for a doomsday weapon that can destroy their homeworld. Their job is to stop the IMC from using this weapon before time runs out.
Is this cliche? Sure. But I don’t think that hurts the story. In fact, the plot itself is one of the few things the story has going for it. Heck, this story is half Star Wars, which was itself a bundle of already-existing cliches and tropes. The world loves Star Wars despite the extremely familiar story template, and Titanfall 2 could have worked just as well if it hadn’t fumbled on some of the basics.
The game is in such a hurry to get started that it doesn’t even stop to set up the stakes of the story. We’re supposedly fighting to save a planet, but we don’t have the name or face of a single person who lives there. We never visit it. The closest we get is a shot of an empty field during VR training. Is that moment really supposed to sustain our entire attachment and represent everything we’re fighting for? It’s like an action movie where the hero spends the whole time trying to rescue a girlfriend he never talks about and who never appears on-screen.
But Shamus! Star Wars blew up a planet without ever showing it to us!
The emotional punch of destroying Alderaan doesn’t come from the explosion, it comes from Leia, a firmly established character who the audience cares for. Titanfall doesn’t have any characters that can do this for us. We experience the destruction of Alderaan through Leia’s eyes, and her anguish is what makes us hate the Empire and care about the rebellion. Later, we get a secondary dose of pathos when Ben Kenobi reacts to the same event. Oh, and speaking of the mentor character…
Lastimosa shouldn’t have died on the first mission. You don’t kill off the mentor character in the opening action scene, because it’s too abrupt. It’s like one of those clumsy revenge stories that kills off the wife / kids / village right after the opening credits instead of letting us get to know them and build an emotional connection to make their death meaningful to the audience.
You’d need at least one “regular” mission to establish the status quo before you upend it. We needed one more scene of them palling around before Cooper was thrust into greatness. Yes, I know the game designer was worried about making the player wait too long before giving them their mech, and that’s a valid concern. But the introductory mission wouldn’t have needed to be very long, and it would have gone a long way to giving us the proper emotional setup. Half-Life 2 made us wait over half an hour before we got our first firearm and it was one of the most memorable and talked about sections of the game, so I think Titanfall 2 could have safely waited until the second mission to put us in the driver seat of an off-brand Jaeger.
Yes, that’s a small quibble. But it’s indicative of the larger problem that the storyteller has no sense of restraint. They think every moment needs to be intense, hurried, epic, frantic, and exciting, which means that the whole thing blurs together into an indistinguishable roar of sound and fury. Crysis 2 had the same problem. I can’t get excited as everyone screams at me to hurry up and stop the super-weapon before it goes off, because people have been screaming at me to hurry for the last four hours.
Titanfall 2 isn’t as bad as some games in the genre, but it still suffers from an overabundance of urgency. George Wiedman already made the definitive video on this topic, but the gist is that the action scenes can’t seem exciting unless they’re contrasted against quieter moments. And just to be clear, we’re not talking about times when you stop playing because it’s a non-interactive cutscene.
If you play the (free) Lost Coast level for Half-Life 2 with developer commentary turned on, you can hear them talk about the need for these moments. In a gameplay sense, it’s good to let the player explore a space and get to know an area and appreciate the scenery before you open up the mook spigot. In a storytelling sense, it gives the player time to stop and reflect on what’s already happened, and wonder what’s going to happen next. It builds a sense of anticipation.
These moments don’t even need to be long. In fact, they shouldn’t be. It should just be an area to explore where nobody is shouting at you over the radio. You don’t force the player to stop and reflect, you just need to allow them to do so.
Titanfall 2 has a few semi-slow moments, but not nearly enough to break up the long sections of unrelenting action. These moments should be a regular part of the rhythm of the game. There’s nothing like those quiet moody intervals we saw in Half Life 2 during the Nova Prospekt chapter, where the lights were low, there was some slow haunting music playing, and we were allowed to feel a sense of mystery and apprehension.
Almost No Characters
This is a game with no real characters. Sure, there are people in it that seem like characters. They have names and voices and character models. They copy the style of cinema. Sometimes someone makes a joke, and they sometimes react to big events, but they don’t actually fulfill the duties of a character. Ask yourself: What’s the big motivation for these characters? What’s driving them to do the things they do? What’s their character arc?
Titanfall 2 repeats the mistake of Fallout 4 by giving us a main character who is voiced, yet not characterized. Cooper doesn’t really have any given ambitions aside from the things related to the mission and his direct survival. He doesn’t have any amusing quirks, interesting history, odd opinions, hobbies, hang-ups, or dreams. It’s the worst of both worlds. We don’t get a mute onto which we can project ourselves, and we also don’t get a memorable character. The writer refuses to fill in the protagonist, and yet they forbid us from doing the job ourselves. Yes, Cooper gets a tiny bit of buddy-banter with BT. But that doesn’t make him a character and it doesn’t make him interesting. (Especially since the few glimmers of humor come from BT.)
Lastimosa gets a tiny slice of characterization. He says at one point, “I’m not even supposed to be training you.” That’s a pretty good hook, but they never hang anything on it. That’s an interesting start, but the idea is dropped the moment it’s introduced. Just think of all the interesting angles you could explore with that idea. Maybe he thinks the existing pilot program is too slow. Maybe he thinks they’re choosing the wrong people to be pilots. Maybe he had a crush on your mom back in the day. Maybe he feels like he owes a favor to one of your parents. Maybe he’s haunted by some mistake in his past and as penance he’s trying to save you from repeating it.
I’m not asking for a ninety-minute drama here. We just need one or two short conversations to establish why he’s training you and what he hopes to accomplish. The conversations can even be optional for the player. It’s only a couple of minutes of screen time, which is nothing in a game this size. It would make all the difference. The player could inherit his motivation (avenge some wrong, prove that the pilot program is flawed, whatever) when Lastimosa dies.
But no. He dies pretty much as soon as the game starts without the writer ever investing in him. His death means nothing and we feel nothing.
BT is probably the most thoroughly characterized person in the whole game. Which is a problem, since he’s deadpan, stoic, and overly literal. That kind of character works best when attached to someone loud, vibrant, or manic. He needs someone to play the clown to his straight man shtick, and Cooper is too empty to make that work. (Note how Portal inverts this, making the player the straight [wo]man and the robots the clowns. That way we’re not leaning on the stoic to do all the heavy lifting in terms of characterization.) Yes, BT is occasionally fun. But compare him to other robo-buddies and robo-foils like GLADos, Wheatley, G0-T0, Shodan, Legion, Claptrap, and HK-47. Love them or hate them, you at least feel something towards these robots. BT is supposedly the high point of this game, but I’m betting he’s not going to turn into a meme like those others. He’s not a great character. He just seems that way compared to everyone else in Titanfall 2.
Also note that BT barely has any motivation aside from his programmed directives. GLADos was deeply and disturbingly obsessed with testing. Wheatley had a crushing inferiority complex. G0-T0 had a enormously ambitious plan to save the galaxy through subtle manipulation. Legion was a prototype, the emissary of an entire race, and a Commander Shepard Cosplayer. Heck, even annoying Claptrap’s one-note struggle to make someone like him is more interesting than BT’s simplistic drive to “complete the mission”.
Again, that’s fine if BT is an understated character. Not every fictional robot needs to be a malfunctioning nutjob. The problem is that BT is supposed to carry the emotional weight of the story and his character design isn’t equipped to do it.
You might argue that BT and Cooper share a character arc. At the end the story sort of pretends they bonded. But it’s not like they started off at odds and learned to work together. They didn’t have ideological differences to overcome. They didn’t have any emotional baggage to deal with. They didn’t start off in a state of mutual distrust. They didn’t bicker at first. They didn’t suffer a bunch of setbacks because of problems with their relationship. They didn’t have clashing personalities. They began their partnership realizing they needed to work together, and then they did exactly that for the rest of the game. Neither of them really changed. That’s not an arc, that’s a five-hour status quoAnd no, the misunderstanding over the “shortcut” doesn’t count as conflict..
For contrast: Consider Wreck-It Ralph. In that story, Sergeant Calhoun has a traumatic past that haunts her and interferes with her budding relationship with Felix. In the story, she overcomes this event, transcends it, and begins a new life. What I’m talking about here isn’t the main character or the main plot. This is an arc between two side characters that happens far in the background of a breezy 100-minute children’s movie. And yet BT and Cooper can’t even establish an arc that simplistic in the five hours they spend together as the central characters of Titanfall 2.
I guess I should mention the bad guys. Or rather, the one bad guy template that keeps popping up over and over:
- Who are you? It doesn’t matter. I’m too busy being evil to trifle with a lowly pilot like you.
- Hello Cooper. I’m just calling to remind you that you have no skill and I don’t care about you.
- I guess I underestimated you. Perhaps you are a worthy adversary after all. Now I look forward to killing you. But first, I will send waves of mooks at you for some reason.
- Ha ha! Now I will kill you because I am so stro-OH NO HOW DID I LOSE?!
I forget how many enemy pilots you meet that follow this same pattern. (To mix things up, sometimes the writer has them skip step #3. And the last one does something unexpected.) Although to be fair, I guess it does qualify as an arc. I mean, a character announces a goal (kill the player) and this desire is resolved when they fail (because you kill them) so it does sort of qualify as arc-ish. But it’s completely uninteresting because you know how it will end the moment they call you for the first time, and it’s made that much worse through repetition.
Stories Require Emotion. Emotion Requires Characters.
I suppose I should do my usual disclaimer: This game isn’t terrible. I actually really enjoyed it. It’s one of the better examples of the genre. The people praising it are no doubt comparing it to the other games in the genre. Which, fine. Titanfall 2 is Shakespeare compared to the average Battlefield. But that’s like saying “this guy is the best singer in professional wrestling”. It doesn’t mean he’s a good singer.
Sure, BT is kinda fun, the parkour really makes the gunplay more lively, and stomping around in a Titan is gleefully empowering. I complain about this game not because it’s bad, but because it could be so much better.
I find these kinds of games to be kind of frustrating. The cinematic presentation makes it feel like it’s trying to be a movie, but it’s not. It copies the tropes and presentation of the modern blockbuster, but it’s completely unable to connect and make us care about things beyond mowing down the faceless dudes on the way to the next objective marker. You think you’re about to eat a banana split, but when you dig in you find out it’s just a big pile of whipped cream with a cherry on top. Sure, none of it tastes bad, but it’s also strangely unfulfilling and leaves you wishing all the ingredients were present.
It’s a shame. The money is there. The cinematic talent is there. The voice acting and animations are there. But the writing isn’t, and I doubt this is going to change anytime soon. The developer would need to recognize this problem and decide to aim higher. Given the fact that sales are usually good and review scores are high, they’re likely to assume this stuff just doesn’t matter to most people.
And maybe they’re right. But I think they’re underestimating the value of careful pacing and solid characters. Maybe they’re happy to make something vapid and forgettable, but I think they’re squandering the opportunity to make the kind of game we’ll still be talking about a decade from now. Get the gameplay right and you get a fun action game like Doom. But if you can do that while also getting the characters right, you’ll have a classic like Half-Life 2, Uncharted, or Last of Us.
 And no, the misunderstanding over the “shortcut” doesn’t count as conflict.
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