Like I said in the introduction, this series is going to focus on advice more than straight critique. This is basically an expansion on the How I’d Have Done it sections in my Mass Effect Andromeda series. Also, I’m going to be focusing on a minimalist approach. The goal here isn’t to create a massive story-world full of complex intrigue and fill the game with hours of cutscenes. The goal is to create a story of surgical efficiency where we can create tension, stakes, and emotional investment in the shortest possible time. This is an action shooter, and the fanbase is not going to be filled with people hungry for ambitious worldbuilding and miles of backstory. Statistically, these players are not fans of classic BioWare, and we need to respect their expectations.
Which means these first few entries are going to be rough. The opening scenes of Rage 2 are easily the worst part of the game. As I said in my Escapist column back in May: There are about 3.5 minutes of gameplay in the first 23 minutes of the game. Having bad cutscenes is one thing, but having overlong bad cutscenes is worse and having them at the start of an action title is suicidal. Players are going to start skipping cutscenes, and if they skip the intro then they’ll probably skip everything else and all our expensive animation and voice acting will go to waste.
Who is Walker, and Who is Dead?
The game starts off with an excruciating two and a half minutes of cutscene where our main bad guy General Cross gives a very shouty speech to his troops. For reasons that will become clear later, I want to put off talking about this until the next entry. For now let’s just mash the “Skip Cutscene” button and jump right to the action…
You start out in some sort of bunker that’s currently under attack. You’re offered the choice to play as either a male or female character. Once you’ve made your choice, the other character is immediately killed. Then we learn your character is named Walker. That’s kind of funny.
In Mass Effect, you choose if Shepard is male or female. If you choose male, then there isn’t a female Shepard, and vice versa. In Mass Effect Andromeda and Dishonored 2, you choose to play as one of two distinct characters. The other character is sidelined for the remainder of the story. Here in Rage 2, we have two distinct people but only the one you choose is named Walker.
This is a smart way of handling player gender choice in the context of an action shooter: Get it over with quickly and don’t create extraneous characters. I guess you could just do it in a menu, but the death of not-Walker sets up a semi-humorous slapstick death as the door is blown out of its frame and squishes them. I also find some meta-humor in the notion that you have to collapse the waveform to determine who is Walker and who is dead.
For the purposes of pronouns, I’m going to pick female Walker for this series. It really doesn’t matter. As far as I can tell, the two characters have the same dialogThey also have a lot of the same dialog spoken TO them, which means female Walker is called “dashing” and “handsome” at a couple of points. That’s fine. Whatever. I’d get annoyed if an RPG did this sort of thing, but in the context of a shooter where your character is basically a very smug gun I just can’t bring myself to care..
Lily enters the scene. She’s Walker’s sister. (Walker is actually an orphan adopted by Lily’s mother.) They share some banter and show no empathy whatsoever for the not-Walker who just got squished by the doorWhich is fine in this case. Now is not the time for pathos.. Lily and Walker fight their way to a courtyard where we get another minute-long cutscene. A 20-footAbout 6 meters. brute monster storms in. Some guy in special armor rides into the scene on a motorcycle and Lily explains that he’s “Ranger Jersey”. Jersey then attacks the brute, who bites his head off.
“Holy shit it took his whole head off!”, Walker exclaims.
It’s generally a waste of dialog to have characters narrate things that the audience can already see for themselves. It makes sense to have a reaction line after his death, but it should tell us something new or serve the story in some way.
Comedy: Oh! That’s gonna leave a mark!
Ironic pun-based anti-comedy comedy: Looks like Jersey had trouble keeping his head in a fight.
Melodrama: NOOOooooo! You’ll pay for that!
Personal exposition: I’ve never seen a Ranger die before!
Worldbuilding: He was one of the last 6 Rangers left!
The brute dies due to the grenade Jersey threw into its mouth at the last moment. Walker then pulls Jersey’s remains out of his Ranger armor and puts it on.
I know it probably seems like I’m skimming over things, so I want to stress that my description is very true to how things happen in the game. Things happen abruptly with no build-up, we get very little in the way of reactions from our leads, and then you’re shoved onward to the next thing. The game just started. We met two people, one of them died, and our character slipped on their still-wet armor like it was no big deal. Paradoxically, it feels like the whole thing is cutscenes and yet it feels like you’re skipping cutscenes.
From there we go to another area and we’re introduced to SergeantShe’s supposedly a sergeant, but she’s in charge of this entire outpost / town and there don’t seem to be any officers among the Rangers. Either military ranks work differently after the apocalypse or the writer wasn’t totally clear on the line between officers and enlisted. Erwina Prowley. She’s Lily’s mother and thus Walker’s adoptive mother. Prowley is a hard-ass woman with battle scars who screams orders about sitreps and hotzones. All of the following takes place in a single cutscene:
- We meet Prowley.
- She notices that Walker put on Ranger armor.
- Another brute enters. This one is perhaps 50 feet15 meters. tall.
- General Cross enters and Prowley reacts with disbelief that Cross is still alive.
- Cross twirls his metaphorical mustache.
- The brute grabs both Prowley and Walker.
- Prowley breaks free, grabs a mounted gun, and blows the arm off the brute, thus freeing Walker.
- Prowley is captured.
- Prowley is executed by General Cross.
- Walker passes out.
- Lily revives Walker the next morning, after the battle is over.
- Lily mourns her mother and explains that the base is down to just a handful of survivors.
That’s a lot of stuff to have happen all at once. The whole scene is about 5 minutes long. Once again a character dies in the same cutscene where they are introduced.
This cutscene feels paradoxically rushed and yet overlong. Too many things happen too close together, mixed with too much awkward exposition, and so none of it really registers. At the same time, the player spends too much time not playing the game.
This it isn’t just boring, it’s actively damaging to the story this game wants to tell. If the story doesn’t matter, then why are these cutscenes so long? If story does matter, then why are we telling it in this awkward, rushed way?
We need player input to happen sooner, we need it to last longer, we need these cutscenes to be shorter, and we need to create emotional investment and stakes so these losses can have some impact on the player.
My suggestion here is the same as the suggestion I had for the original Dishonored: If the death of a character is going to be the inciting incident in a story, we can’t introduce them and kill them off in the same scene. You just can’t expect the player to feel anything in response to the death of a character that was just introduced. There needs to be space between the introduction and the death. We need to create a status quo before we can disrupt it, and we need to give the player time to become attached to someone before they’re killed. The most obvious way to do this is to have a single mission that establishes normalcy and creates short-term goals for the player to think about.
So here are my suggested fixes:
As with the actual game, we can start with the player talking to Lily. But instead of starting with the attack in progress, we begin the game in pre-invasion Vineland. The player should be allowed to walk around and see their home in its natural state. Lily is introduced in dialogOr, if you MUST, using one of those oh-so-cute character cards. and we get the siblings explanation out of the way. Lily says Walker needs to go see Mom.
The player is allowed to navigate around on their own, putting them in control right away. They just need to cross a small courtyard to reach Prowley’s office. As Walker enters, Prowley is talking to a civilian about some sort of water problem. The civilian exits when Walker enters, leaving the two of them alone.
Walker: Mom, you wanted to see me?
Prowley: (Brusque.) Are we in uniform?
Prowley: Then I’m Sergeant Prowley to you.
Walker: Okay then, Sergeant Prowley. But if we’re following protocol then why am I not a Ranger yet? I’ve passed the tests. I’ve paid my dues. I’m a better driver than Jersey and I’m a way better marksman than Sidewinder. I’m ready. (Beat.) I’m more than ready.
Prowley: You’re not a Ranger until I say you’re a Ranger. That’s just the way it works.
Walker: Can I at least do some patrols with the squad? I’ve been cooped up here in Vineland forever and I want to see-
Prowley: (Cuts her off.) If you’re looking for action then there’s plenty of that for you here. We got muties in the waterworks again. Go see Jersey.
Prowley: (Firm.) That’s an order.
Walker: (Crestfallen.) Yes, Sergeant Prowley.
In 11 lines of dialog, we’ve established:
- The distant relationship between our lead and her mother figure.
- Walker’s desire to be a Ranger.
- Walker’s dedication and capability as a military-type shooty person.
- Walker is stuck inside the base, which implies that people can’t come and go freely, which tells us a bit about how this town works.
- A little mystery for the audience to ponder: Why hasn’t Sgt. Prowley made her badass daughter a Ranger?
That’s not bad for 11 lines of dialog. This will also save us many lines of dialog later, because we won’t have to awkwardly explain this stuff in the middle of a battle.
After the conversation, the player is free to move around. Maybe the walk to the Waterworks is a good place to put the crouch / slide / jump / pick up stuff tutorials. Whatever. We just want the player to feel involved. Just outside the waterworks, Walker meets Jersey:
Walker: How come you guys don’t ever have to do this shit? I’ll bet cleaning muties out of the waterworks is a lot easier when you’ve got Ranger armor.
Jersey: You know how it goes, Walker. Everyone has to pay their dues if they want to wear the suit. (He hands her an assault rifle.)
Walker: You know I have, and then some.
Jersey: I know. Maybe Prowley is just trying to avoid looking like she’s playing favorites. (He pulls the release lever to open up the waterworks access.) Good luck in there, Walker.
Walker: (Grudgingly.) Thanks Jersey.
5 more lines of dialog tell us:
- Walker evidently does this kind of thing a lot, thus establishing her capabilities. This is a shooter, not an RPG. She doesn’t need to start out a lowly farmhand and level up into a demigod. It works much better for the gameplay if our lead is a capable badass right out of the gate.
- We can intuit there’s something powerful / special about Ranger armor.
- We establish that Walker admires the armor, which will make it more interesting when she finally gets to put it on.
- We meet Jersey and see that he and Walker are on friendly terms.
- We reinforce the little mystery about why Walker hasn’t been made a Ranger yet.
So we’ve done some worldbuilding and given our protagonist some motivation. We’ve established that Ranger armor is powerful and useful somehow, and that Walker wants it for its utility, not just as a status symbol. We’ve shown Vineland in its ideal state so the player will have a sense of loss when it gets destroyed. We’ve established a personality for our protagonist, and created a couple of relationships. And finally we’ve allowed the player to move around so they feel like they’re playing the game rather than watching a cutscene. The interactivity is mostly an illusion, but it’s better than total passivity.
I usually try to make budget-neutral suggestions. During Andromeda, I tried to suggest things that were better, but without needing more money / time. After all, it’s easy to fantasize how to fix things if you imagine you have unlimited resources.
But I have to admit we’re probably spending more money to make my version. Pre-invasion Vineland would be an area with buildings and NPCs that don’t exist in the shipped game. Those NPCs will need to be scripted to move around so they look busy, and they’ll need a little ambient chatter so they don’t feel mute. So my version is going to be expensive.
We’re not going to be scripting so many long cutscenes. In terms of dollars-to-minutes, gameplay is massively cheaper than cutscenes. So maybe it’s a wash? I don’t know. I only know AAA development though GDC talks, and I can’t really say one way or another.
My version might be slightly longer in terms of word count, but these lines will enable us to chop a bunch of dialog out of the action scenes later so we’re not clogging up exciting / intense moments with clumsy exposition. We can give Jersey his big heroic death moment without needing to awkwardly explain who he is and how he’s above Lily and Walker in the pecking order moments before he dies. We can cut all the awkward flow-breaking exposition that introduces Prowley in the middle of a supposedly hectic scene.
Even if my version is more expensive: If there’s one place where it’s safe to spend a little extra to make things good, it’s in the first 20 minutes of the game.
This conversation can solidify the relationship between Walker and Lily. Lily can complain about the fact that she can’t ever become a Ranger because her body isn’t compatible with the armor’s nanotrite science-wizard powers. (There’s already a line about this in the game, but here I’m introducing the idea earlier so it doesn’t seem weird when Lily doesn’t show any interest in Ranger armor of her own.)
Once the player clears out the mutie nest, Lily tells Walker that she’s supposed to report back to Prowley. Ah! So maybe now Walker is finally going to be accepted as a Ranger? Walker is excited and gets her hopes up.
But then Cross attacks, as in the shipped game. The player gets a few minutes of blasting Cross’ goon squad. Jersey and Prowley both die, while Walker is knocked out of the fight by a contrivance.
I’d cut 90% of Cross’ villainous monologue, because most of it is empty bluster with no real plot or character information.
Not only is this introduction far more engaging than the bulk exposition of the original, but it breaks the cutscenes up so the player doesn’t need to be a passive viewer for minutes at a time. Instead of a single five minute cutscene you’ll end up with something like five one-minute cutscenes. The player can have more gameplay, sooner, and that gameplay won’t be tangled up in tutorial popups.
We’ve still got more introduction to fix. I’ll cover the rest of this in the next entry.
 They also have a lot of the same dialog spoken TO them, which means female Walker is called “dashing” and “handsome” at a couple of points. That’s fine. Whatever. I’d get annoyed if an RPG did this sort of thing, but in the context of a shooter where your character is basically a very smug gun I just can’t bring myself to care.
 Which is fine in this case. Now is not the time for pathos.
 About 6 meters.
 She’s supposedly a sergeant, but she’s in charge of this entire outpost / town and there don’t seem to be any officers among the Rangers. Either military ranks work differently after the apocalypse or the writer wasn’t totally clear on the line between officers and enlisted.
 15 meters.
 Or, if you MUST, using one of those oh-so-cute character cards.
 Not much, but every little bit counts!
A look back at Star Trek, from the Original Series to the Abrams Reboot.
Quakecon 2011 Keynote Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
Video Compression Gone Wrong
How does image compression work, and why does it create those ugly spots all over some videos and not others?
A Star is Born
Remember the superhero MMO from 2009? Neither does anyone else. It was dumb. So dumb I was compelled to write this.
Let's ruin everyone's fun by listing all the ways in which zombies can't work, couldn't happen, and don't make sense.