In the previous entry, I began making suggestions on how to fix some of the obvious problems with this script / story / game. I should make a few ground rules clear:
- I’m only modifying scenes, not re-structuring the plot or writing a new story. This means my plot will inherit a lot of the structural problems of the original, but that’s fine. I want to do side-by-side comparisons as we step through the game, and we can’t do that if my story goes off in a totally different direction.
- Even though the game was marketed as a comedy, the story itself is… not. In my suggestions, I’ve been keeping the self-serious tone of the shipped game. I’ll make comedic suggestions here and there, but for the most part I’m keeping the existing tone.
- I’m trying to keep my suggestions moderately budget neutral. I might add a few lines of dialog or an NPC here or there, but I’m staying within the given scope.
Last time, I mentioned that the game begins with a two-minute expositional monologue from our villain General Cross as he addresses his troops. I skipped over that bit, but let’s back up and analyze it now.
During this monologue, Cross gives exposition for the following:
- An asteroid named Apophis hit Earth years ago, transforming it into the wasteland it is today.
- Cross wanted to use this global cleansing as an opportunity to set up a brutalist techno-fascist state and conquer the world.
- A lone guy named Nicholas RaineThe player character from the previous game. stopped them.
- Arks emerged and eco-pods fell down (we don’t know what these are yet) which put an end to their plans.
- The thing with the eco-pods kick-started the regrowth of life, which was a setback for Cross. He wanted to do the same thing himself, presumably using different lifeforms as a starting point. It seems he thinks his society of cybernetic goons is a new species, and he wants to create a world suited for them and not for obsolete humanity.
- Humans are pitiful, naive, unworthy, etc. They chose to survive rather than allowing Cross to take over with his superior breed.
- They thought we were defeated. We LET them think that. But actually we moved our operation underground! Since then we’ve watched them fight among each other.
- We grew strong, doing science and stuff. We’re now re-dedicating to our original purpose to weed out the weak.
- Now we’re going to kill them, wipe out their settlements, claim the arks, and take over.
- Our faction is called THE AUTHORITY!
There’s a lot wrong with this. Most importantly, none of this information is needed at this point in the story. I skipped it in the last entry, and everyone was able to get the general gist of the world. Nobody was stuck saying, “Help. I can’t possibly comprehend this monster attack without first knowing what caused this apocalypse and how it changed the political and cultural landscape of the world!”
Making things worse is the overly verbose dialog. Worse still is that the bad guy’s delivery is really grating with many… dramatic… PAUSES! It’s information the audience doesn’t need, doesn’t care about, which is delivered at the worst possible time, as slowly as possible.
Even if this information was interesting, this is the wrong time for it. In an RPG, your introduction probably has the following priorities:
But in an action game, these are reversed. We need to get the player into the gameplay as soon as possible, and then we need to engage their emotions by using characters. Once they’re playing the game and they feel a personal attachment to the world, then we can sneak in little bits of worldbuilding to explain the asteroid that caused the apocalypse and the events of the previous game. Rage 2 tries to lead off with worldbuilding and characters, but it also tries to rush through them to get to the action, so we end up with the worst of both worlds.
Cross is talking to his own soldiers, which means this entire speech is one giant As you know, Bob. Cross is telling his troops their entire history and goals, which you’d kind of expect them to know already. Even if we decide we need to begin the game with a bulk info-dump, this is the wrong person to give it and the wrong people to hear it.
This information could easily be cut here and given organically through dialog over the next half hour of gameplay. I realize this might sound massively hypocritical coming from a guy who front-loaded his novel with brute-force exposition. But the needs of a sci-fi novel are very different from the needs of an action shooter. A novel needs to tell you everything in words, but a videogame can use sound, visuals, and animation to reveal the world to the audience. Starting off with a dude delivering a speech is a really boring and inefficient way of conveying this information. To be fair to the cutscene, it does cut away to footage of some of the events Cross is talking about, so the cutscene isn’t entirely his talking head.
The player is here to shoot mutants and wreck cars. We have gameplay tutorials that we need to take them through. We need to get them invested and having fun as soon as possible, and this long speech works against that. It would be better to send the player into the game lost and confused than to make them sit through this two and a half minutes of drip-fed backstory, but if we really needed to have this sequence, then we need more showing and less telling.
We can begin with General Cross knocking over some town or outpost. The locals could exclaim stuff like, “Oh no, it’s General Cross!” and “Impossible, the Authority was destroyed years ago!” to get the obvious exposition out of the way. (This would have the added benefit that we wouldn’t need to cram this information into the already-crowded cutscene where Sgt. Prowley dies.) Then Cross could explain his purpose to the settlers while his army is slaughtering them. Maybe he snatches up one of the city defenders by the neck and delivers his big campaign speech to that guy. If we really want to commit to the comedy vibe, then we could gradually transition from a wide shot of his attack to a tight shot on his face. His face is gradually lit from below with fire and his eyes become more maniacal. Slowly the sounds of screaming and gunfire cease as he builds to a mad crescendo announcing his grandiose plans. Then we cut back to the wide shot and we realize that the settlers are all dead. He’s throttled the city guard, who is now a ragdoll. He falters mid-tirade and there’s a beat where he realizes he’s talking to himself. Embarrassed, he chucks the guard over his shoulder and storms off in a huff.
We could easily get all of this exposition done in under a minute, particularly if we tighten up his dialog and speed up his delivery. We could slam-cut to the opening credits after his tirade, which means the player will begin the game waiting for the other shoe to drop. They know this guy is out there, and as they meet their friends and family in my rewritten intro, they’ll realize that they’re all at risk of suffering the same fate as those poor idiots Cross just massacred.
It’s not much, but a tiny measure of empathy and suspense is still way better than zero empathy and suspense.
What’s In a Name?
The other problem with this monologue is that the writer doesn’t understand the worldbuilding power of names. Cross uses phrases like “those that opposed us” when talking about people outside of The Authority. He calls them “they” and “them”, but he doesn’t seem to have a proper noun for the people he’s talking about. It sounds unnatural and awkward, because in the real world we are really good at coming up with shorthand names for our perceived enemies.
The term “environmental activist” is kinda long and cumbersome. Why call someone that when you can call them a “tree hugger”? That identifies the outgroup you’re upset with, while also belittling their cause. That’s why we have terms like regressives, one-percenters, snowflakes, boomers, zoomers, weebs, fundies, tree-huggers, tea-baggers, and commies. I’ll bet at least one of those terms annoyed you, or summoned an image of someone you find really annoying. And those are the tame examples. The slang words we devise for the people we want to kill are quite a bit worse.
The point is that if you’re writing some dialog and you find yourself typing a phrase like “those that opposed us”, it means you need to back up and invent a shorthand for this group. What pejorative would The Authority use to refer to the people of the wasteland?
All we need to do is look at the characters. The Authority sees themselves as agents of order, progress, and evolution. Those are – as far as we can tell in the game – their values. Therefore their insults ought to reflect this. They would probably describe outsiders using terms like savages, ferals, rebels, animals, rodents, or parasites. To Cross, the people outside are looters and scavengers. They’re obsolete inferior mongrels. They’re unruly rebellious vermin.
So instead of saying “those that opposed us”, he could say something along the lines of “feral trash-pickers”. That’s more natural, it characterizes Cross and his faction organically through dialog, and later in the story it can be shortened to “ferals” to make dialog tighter. Little details like this can make a setting seem vibrant. It will feel more like a living world and less like an arrangement of tropes to facilitate gameplay.
Later in the series I’ll talk more about the intense need to trim the dialog in this game, but for now let’s move on.
The Least Brief Briefing
Let’s jump back to covering the story in progress. Like I said last time: Walker puts on Ranger armor, her mother-figure Prowley is killed by General Cross, and Vineland is left in ruins.
Once the attack is over and Lily has mourned her mother for six seconds, she and Walker discuss what to do next. Walker comes up with the idea to visit Ranger HQ and see if there’s any information that could help them take down General Cross.
Inside, Walker encounters a hologram of Sergeant Prowley that says, “Walker, if you’re seeing this message then it means we’ve been hit harder than ever before. I’m likely dead, and Vineland is laid to ruin. It also means that you’re the only living Ranger, and that the Authority is back and they must be stopped. All these years I kept you away from the ranks of the Rangers as I hoped you would be spared in an attack like this – likely targeting Rangers and Elders. You’re my hidden weapon. Sorry I kept you in the dark.”
Arg. This makes Prowley seem RIDICULOUSLY prescient. She was apparently able to predict:
- A huge attack specifically from the Authority.
- That the authority would specifically target Rangers and elders but also leave other people alive for some reason.
- Prowley anticipated her own death.
- She predicted that Walker would survive…
- …and that none of the other Rangers would.
- Some Ranger armor would survive and that Walker specifically would be the one to put it on.
- Walker would be the one to enter HQ to hear this recording.
There are a lot of possible permutations of events that don’t match these exact facts. This is an action story and we don’t need to explain every little detail, but this comes off as absurd.
You could fix this by making it both more plausible and more interesting by employing dramatic irony. Instead of her flawlessly predicting the outcome of a chaotic battle, have her attempt to do so and fail:
In my version she might say something like, “To the last of the Rangers. I don’t know how many of you are left, but you can’t let my death be the end of our struggle. Pull together. Protect what’s left. Refill your ranks.”
This amps up the tension considerably. It drives home the idea that this situation is far worse than Prowley ever imagined.
Instead of being guided by an apparent psychic who already has a plan, we’re in a desperate situation where we can’t imagine how we can overcome this enemy.
Let’s back up and consider this line again:
“All these years I kept you away from the ranks of the Rangers as I hoped you would be spared in an attack like this – likely targeting Rangers and Elders. You’re my hidden weapon. Sorry I kept you in the dark.”
To be honest, I’m not totally crazy about the idea of Walker being this secret badass. It smacks too much of “chosen one” tropes that work well in RPGs but don’t really suit an action story like this one. It’s too patronizing to tell the player “You are a special badass” at the start of the storyAlthough to be fair, the new DOOM kinda gets away with this. But then again, DOOM is leaning on DoomGuy’s existing cultural reputation as shorthand for his power. Essentially, “You already know what a badass this guy is.” Rage 2 can’t do this because it doesn’t have a quarter century of entrenched fandom to lean on.. We have a long road ahead, and being proclaimed a badass works so much better as something the protagonist earns through their actions. Walker is a voiced protagonist with no arc, and making her earn the respect of her allies would do a lot to correct that.
But fine. I’m trying to stick with the story we have. I’m trying to fix the story by changing how we tell it, not by telling a different story. So we’ll keep the idea of Walker being a secret badass.
The bigger problem is that this is a payoff to something the story didn’t set up. In the game, there’s nothing before this moment to suggest that Walker is a secret weapon. In the rewrite I did last week, I tried to fix that by introducing the question, “Why hasn’t Prowley made Walker a Ranger yet, since Walker is so qualified?” This briefing would answer that question rather than just pull the “secret badass” idea out of nowhere. This would be a payoff to an existing question rather than a random declaration that the player character is a special snowflake.
Getting back to the briefing in the game…
Action Protagonists Require Agency
Prowley then outlines that she has a secret plan to take down the Authority, called Project Dagger. She then explains that she’s been working with three other people on this project. She then tells you who all of these people are, what they do, and she gives us their entire backstories. This probably the worst creative decision in the game, since it makes everything else so much harder. This creative decision will continue to damage the story for the next several hours, because we’ve already spoiled everything that’s going to happen.
Worse, this steals all of the agency from our protagonist and gives it to a dead NPC. Mass Effect 3 made a similar mistake when all the important decisions were made by secondary characters and Shepard lost all sense of agency. You’re not finding out how to beat the enemy, you’re just enacting an existing plan cooked up by someone else. I don’t care what genre of fiction you’re working in, this is a serious blunder and video games make it all the time.
The protagonist needs to be an active force in a story and an agent of change. If you have them enacting plans in which they have no say, then your main character becomes nothing more than a walking gun. If you’re not the one making decisions or going through some sort of character arc, then you’re not the protagonist. You’re just a supporting character who’s hogging the camera.
Yes, there are shooters out there where the main character is a walking gun with no story agency or arc. Half-Life 2 is the classic example. But Half-Life 2 has a silent protagonist. Gordon Freeman isn’t constantly asserting a personality within the story, so the player is allowed to project their own feelings onto the character. Rage 2 gives us a protagonist with a personality that displaces the player’s, but that personality isn’t important or relevant to the story and isn’t particularly interesting on its own. We get the worst of both worlds.
None of this exposition is needed, because Walker should be coming to these conclusions herself. Then the protagonist is the one making friends, forging alliances, figuring shit out, and making plans. Don’t have a character tell the player “Go out into the Wasteland”, have the player character say, “I’m going out into the Wasteland.” It takes exactly the same amount of dialog to have a side character to explain a plan as it does to have the protagonist to explain a plan. Don’t have Prowley tell us who we’re going to meet, have them introduce themselves when we meet them. You don’t need to allocate more budget or make more cutscenes. Just put Walker in the driver’s seat of the story.
Also, giving the backstories and character concepts to the audience in this briefing is crazy. It’s a lot of information that the player doesn’t need now because they’ll discover it later. There’s no reason to deliver this information in the most boring way possible. Unlike the earlier stuff, this is not a cutscene. You can’t skip it.
This is like the scenes in Dr. Kliener’s lab or Black Mesa East during Half-Life 2 where the player is free to move around while other people talk. Except the Half-Life 2 scenes at least work in a dramatic sense because you have multiple characters with different personalities interacting with each other. Also, the game designer gives you some gizmos spread around the room for you to fiddle with. Rage 2 locks you in a concrete box with nothing to do, no characters to get to know, no jokes, and no interpersonal drama to keep things interestingAlso, a post-release patch turned up the reverb in this room, so Prowley’s recorded dialog is almost unintelligible without subtitles.. This sequence is six minutes long. That’s six minutes, locked in a roomYou actually run to a side-room for a minute and unlock your dodge power. So that’s a bit of a break in the middle. But still., listening to a recording, where the entire plot and backstory of the game are essentially dropped on the player in the form of an extended audiolog.
This would be bad enough in an RPG, but in the context of an action game this is basically sabotage.
 The player character from the previous game.
 Although to be fair, the new DOOM kinda gets away with this. But then again, DOOM is leaning on DoomGuy’s existing cultural reputation as shorthand for his power. Essentially, “You already know what a badass this guy is.” Rage 2 can’t do this because it doesn’t have a quarter century of entrenched fandom to lean on.
 Also, a post-release patch turned up the reverb in this room, so Prowley’s recorded dialog is almost unintelligible without subtitles.
 You actually run to a side-room for a minute and unlock your dodge power. So that’s a bit of a break in the middle. But still.
The Best of 2016
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2016.
Silent Hill Origins
Here is a long look at a game that tries to live up to a big legacy and fails hilariously.
Could Have Been Great
Here are four games that could have been much better with just a little more work.
Crysis 2 has basically the same plot as Half-Life 2. So why is one a classic and the other simply obnoxious and tiresome?
Pixel City Dev Blog
An attempt to make a good looking cityscape with nothing but simple tricks and a few rectangles of light.