Writing is incredibly hard; a point, I think, that’s been ignored in this burgeoning landscape of Twitter, Tumblr, and repackaged Twilight fan fiction. I suppose a more accurate statement would be that writing well is incredibly hard, but I’m not here to argue semantics. It’s hard, okay!
Let’s face it, designers aren’t writers. That might be an obvious statement, and yet many game designers still write their own scripts. Sure, it works out once in a blue moon, but for the most part we’re left with some truly embarrassing entries in narrative storytelling.
And therein lies the most amusing aspect of the recent Mass Effect 3 debacle. The series has, arguably, some of the finest writing in the medium – a rare combination of unique ideas and engaging dialogue, all set against a mostly solid and coherent narrative. And yet, an unconventional ending (by triple AAA gaming standards) has some labelling the entire outing as a waste of time. Oh sure, it’s an overreaction on the part of a few passionate and misguided individuals. In time, they’ll cool off.
Until then, I’d like to submit to you three endings that truly deserve the kind of vile outrage perpetrated against poor Mass Effect 3. And to be clear, my choices are made purely on the basis of bad writing, not some subjective interpretations of the source material.
Spoilers follow, obviously.
Metal Gear Solid 4
Here is a fun party trick, ask anyone to explain the plot of Metal Gear Solid 4. Most will admit they never played past the first act. Others will take a moment, squint a bit, begin to sweat profusely, then spontaneously combust. I’m not kidding. I’ve done it several times and it’s awesome. My rolodex is really starting to wear thin.
In all sincerity, it’s quite difficult to explain exactly what happens at the end of Metal Gear. There is a climatic boss battle, that much is discernible. However, sandwiched in between is an hour or so of non-interactive video littered with heavy-handed exposition and animated flow charts. It’s a misguided attempt at tying together every loose-end and miscellaneous idea the series had proposed up to that point. It’s also a huge mess.
The mistake here, and really the same could be said of the whole series, is over-reaching ambition. Long time show-runner, Hideo Kojima, throws in just about every science fiction gimmick he can muster: time travel, paradoxes, clones, government conspiracies, future tech, demonic possession – and combines them with the deftness of a blind, armless, glass maker.
The most common mistake an amateur writer can make is biting off more than they can chew. As such, self-editing becomes an invaluable skill – the ability to suss out what needs to be said versus needless minutia often separates the talented from the average. Stupidly, some writers attribute complexity with intelligence. A series like Lost was initially intriguing due to its seemingly complex narrative. Yet, as its layers were exposed that initial mystery proved nothing more than a series of red-herrings. Similarly, Metal Gear Solid 4 proves that it had no master plan either, just a lot of half-baked ideas hidden behind some cutting-edge computer graphics – a frustrating reality for someone seeking resolution.
The story of Halo 2’s troubled production is somewhat legendary. Its predecessor’s insane popularity lead to a rushed production schedule that caused many features to be cut on the fly. The biggest loss: the ending. That’s not a joke, incidentally. The ending was literally abandoned to make release. As a result, gamers were left with a rather unsatisfying cliffhanger.
Halo 2, however, had one positive working in its favor – one that seemingly curbed a large amount of public outcry – the game was the middle chapter in a forced ‘trilogy’. A nice, and often overused, excuse for developers to wring more money out of a hot franchise. “Did we forget to answer something? No worries, brah, well address it in the sequel.”
For my money, forced trilogies are the worst trend facing both gamers and developers these days. Telling one story is hard. Telling one over the span of three games is incredibly difficult. It can lead to needless table setting, dragged out story lines, pointless b-plots, and general drudgery. Those who’ve played Too Human to the end will know what I’m talking about.
Forced cliffhangers are more commonly known as ‘sequel-bait,’ And you’ve no doubt experienced a handful of them in recent years. Iron Man 2, anyone? To be fair, Halo 2 wasn’t the first title to employ this gimmick. However, its success certainly helped set some bad precedents.
To that point, what developers seem to miss is that sequels are opportunities in world building. Gamers fall in love with settings, characters and experiences, not plot lines. If there are more stories to tell in your world (see The Elder Scrolls series) you’re all the better for it. If not, why force blood out of a stone?
On the opposite side of the non-ending spectrum we find Borderlands. The title certainly has a conclusion – it just doesn’t mean anything at the end of the day. Forget about sequel-baiting or over-ambition, the game’s last few moments boldy pull the rug out from under you with a resounding “psych!”
Borderlands, however, leaves you with nothing to chew on – save for some loot you collected along the way. In fact, had that been the twist, had all that experience, gold, and loot you collected along the way been the Vault’s promised fortune, then we’d feel some sense of purpose. Amusingly, the forthcoming sequel only mentions the Vault in passing, focusing instead on other characters and shenanigans.
Despite this one shortcoming, it’s quite easy to enjoy Borderlands. The journey, although pointless, was still immensely entertaining. That’s often the trade-off with video games. They are, after all, wearing many hats. It’s an interactive film, and also a simulator. In a world of rushed production schedules and large bottom-lines it can be difficult to give each section its proper due.
* Ironically, audiences didn’t quite support the ending to Rocky I. As a result we got Rocky II, where Rocky has a rematch with Apollo Creed, and wins. Subsequently Rocky never lost another fight again.