Before we go any further with this series I want to back up and talk about themes. The term “theme” has a couple of different meanings when applied to stories. It can mean an idea that the text brings up again and again, or it can mean something that the author is deliberately trying to say through the workPreferably without saying it explicitly..
We don’t need to draw a hard line between these two. For our purposes a theme can be thought of as a thesis or a message. Perhaps a zombie story tries to show us that “consumers are the real zombies” or perhaps “the survivors are the real monsters”. That’s close enough for our purposes.
Themes Are Critic Bait
George Orwell’s themes were – by design – forceful and obvious, while other stories have proven harder to pin down over the years. James Cameron’s Avatar had a theme that was blunt to the point of being vaguely insulting.
A lit major might jump in here and chastise me for playing fast and loose with the definition of theme and how it applies to fiction. That’s fine, because it doesn’t really matter in this game. Rage 2 is an action adventure power fantasy shooter, and in this realm the rules of fiction are incredibly lax. Like, just having a theme in your game puts you ahead of most shooters, even if that theme is muddled and poorly executed.
Jaded game journalistsThat is, journos jaded by playing a huge number of games. This doesn’t apply to people who might be jaded for other reasons. and story nerds like me will jump at any game that aspires to say something. It doesn’t even have to be deep or profound, it just needs to be coherentUnlike some games I could mention.. You just need to make your story go deeper than “You defeat the bad guy at the end because you’re the hero.” It’s not just people who write about games, either. While plenty of gamers fit the stereotype of fast-shooting cutscene skippers, there are lots of people out there who are hungry for something to think about while they’re sniping dudes or casting fireballs.
Best of all, it’s not hard to create a theme! In the realm of broad action stories, constructing a theme is mostly an exercise in alluding to an idea multiple times without contradicting yourself. If your protagonist is supposed to be motivated by the death of their spouse / sibling / parents, then make “family” your theme. Have your bad guy motivated by a desire to please a cold, distant, and now-dead parental figure. Make your good guys be mostly isolated people like orphans, widowers, divorcées, and outcasts, and then have them coalesce into a makeshift family as they become allies. Have the bad guys enforce loyalty by calling their organization a “family”, but then have the good guys notice or point out that their concept of family is false because it isn’t based on love.
Is this a brilliant theme? Who cares! It doesn’t need to be. Maybe this minimum-effort approach wouldn’t get you very far in a creative writing class, but in this genre the bar has been set incredibly low. In the world of the bland, the one-idea writer is king, and in the land of video games anyone capable of grasping and executing a basic theme is in line for Game of the Year. Mass Effect 2 was praised as a brilliant story despite its many narrative shortcomings. BioShock is regularly held up as one of the best stories in gaming, despite the fact that its theme isn’t any better or more coherent than the shallow bullshit I just made up about “family”.
(For context: The above was written before the release of Borderlands 3, which did almost exactly as I suggested. That game has lots of conversations about family and both the good guys and bad guys are shaped by their familial connections and discuss their relationships in terms of family. It’s a good example of an obvious, lightweight theme that makes the work feel like it’s saying something.)
Themes are “Free”
It’s 100% true that an action story can perform just fine without a theme. I’m not going to claim that this game needed one, or that this game would have played better if only the writers had given it a theme. But themes are good to have, they’re not hard to pull off.
Okay, I’ll admit it is kinda hard. Devising and successfully executing a theme is tricky, but it’s WAY easier than programming your rendering pipeline or scheduling art asset loads over dozens of artists so all the work gets done before the ship date. It’s hard, but it’s not harder than any of the other stuff development teams need to do. Like doing anything else in gamedev, the first step is to make sure you’ve got someone on the team that knows how to do it.
The best part about having a theme in your story is that – assuming you’ve got someone who can do it – it’s almost free! You just need to nod in the direction of an idea, occasionally refer back to it, and not contradict it.
So What was the Theme of Rage 2?
I think you’d have to look very long and squint very hard to find a theme in this game. The writer certainly didn’t create one on purpose. But I think there’s lots of stuff to hang a theme on if we wanted to.
The game has this rebellious punk vibe to it. The promotional art is filled with purple mohawks and bare-chested screaming nutters with baseball bats. The game is called RAGE. The bad guys are called THE AUTHORITY. This game should probably be about rebellion, individuality, smashing power structures, or something along those lines.
But the main character is an enthusiastic member of the military from a city that’s run by (apparently) a military dictatorship. Walker isn’t a rebel punk, she’s a disciplined footsoldier. Walker doesn’t rebel against anything. Instead she does what she’s told by people in positions of power.
The fight in this game is between two military forces, but then you spend 90% of the game wandering the map and blowing away wild wasteland desertpunk bandits. Walker isn’t fighting to destroy authority, she’s just fighting to support the authority she likes best.
Again, this is nominally fine for a shooter. I didn’t fault DOOM 2016 because it didn’t have a clear theme or explore the inner workings of demon culture. But since themes are kinda free-ish to create and they’re so effective when done right, there’s no reason not to throw one in.
If I was allowed to make big changes to the plot, I’d have Walker and friends be normal wasteland settlers instead of second-gen arkists. That’s a FAR better direction to go and there’s lots of stuff you can do with that. But that sort of sweeping change of premise goes against the spirit of this series, so I’m going to keep the idea that Walker grew up in a military fortress and was raised by a drill sergeant. Let’s see if we can find an idea to stretch over the plot we’ve been given…
Rebellion vs. Order
My idea is that wasteland society is caught between the techno-fascism of General Cross’ Authority and the savage anarchy of the bandits. We need to find a balance between these two extremes where humans can live.
We could have dialog like this:
Marshall: I’m grateful you took care of those muties for me, but picking a fight with an Authority convoy? That’s a whole different thing.
Walker: You don’t need to worry. I’ll be the one doing the fighting.
Marshall: You don’t understand. Things are calm right now. I don’t wanna stir things up. We’re not ready for a war with the Authority.
Walker: That war is coming, whether you’re ready for it or not. If your plan is to do nothing, then you’ll wind up just like Vineland.
And then maybe later we get another mission like this:
Loosum sends Walker to recon a Wastelander outpost. Once Walker sees the place is a giant fueling station for raiding convoysThese locations already exist in the game as open-world busywork map markers. I’m just putting one of them into the story., she decides to just blow the place up and shoot all the screaming bandits guarding the place. Once the final fuel tank explodes in a massive orange fireball, we get this dialog:
Loosum Hagar: Walker, you are pure chaos.
Walker: From where I’m standing, I think you guys need a little chaos right now.
Loosum: I hope you’re right. The Gearheads aren’t going to let this go.
Walker: That’s fine. I’m not against killing more of them.
As Walker’s adventure continues, she discovers she needs to go a little native. If we’re willing to burn a little budget on this, then we could even do this visually. Walker starts the game with pristine Ranger armor, but as she applies upgrades her suit and her car take on a more “wastelander” vibe of rusty spikes, chrome skulls, and red paint. Either way, in the end she would represent these two worlds in harmony: The stability of the old world with the dynamism and adaptability of the new. She’s here to tame the bandits and break the old leaders out of their rut.
I hope I’m not making this sound deep or grandiose. We’re mostly talking about changing dialog and journal entries. This is all background noise. The player is busy shooting stuff and we don’t need to waste their time with excess dialog or hit them over the head with a message. I’m just saying that a quick coating of themes and ideas is an easy way to smarten a game up.
Where is the Authority?
I want to end this entry with one last gripe. The map of the Wasteland is big. Ubisoft big. There’s a lot of map markers out there, and most of them involve you going in and killing:
- Bandits: The pink-haired wastepunk freaks I mentioned earlier.
- Mutants: Basically the ghouls from Fallout, except more interesting to fight and less interesting to think about.
- Shrouded: Techno fetishist scavengers. Imagine Star Wars Jawas crossed with Sand People, except they all look like Isaac Clarke from Dead Space.
You’ll notice that THE AUTHORITY doesn’t appear on this list. For whatever reason, our main villain and the supposedly encroaching threat of the plot doesn’t seem to have a foothold in this vast open world. We have story missions where we invade Authority bases and shoot a few dozen of their dudes, and then we piss off back to the open world and shoot hundreds and hundreds of guys with no relevance to the story. I have no idea what the deal is here.
We should at least tuck a few Authority outposts in the high-level zones. This will add some variety to the world and it will sell the idea that the Authority are the top dogs in terms of power even if they haven’t taken over yet.
 Preferably without saying it explicitly.
 That is, journos jaded by playing a huge number of games. This doesn’t apply to people who might be jaded for other reasons.
 Unlike some games I could mention.
 These locations already exist in the game as open-world busywork map markers. I’m just putting one of them into the story.
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