Tag Archive: storytelling


Last week my girlfriend sent me a text message that was gushing with excitement. She had completed Bastion and was blown away by how incredible the whole thing was. I responded to her with this: “Games are defined in their quiet moments of perfect brilliance.” Bastion is one of those games.

Spec Ops: The Line is another. It is a game that is not defined by it’s bog-standard by the book cover-based shooting nor by its anemic attempts at multiplayer. Instead, Spec Ops: The Line is defined by its own not-so-quiet but still equally perfect moments of brilliance.

More Martin Scorsese, less John Milius.

In February I talked about this game. I said that I had high hopes for it, that its developer, Yager Studios, promised a game that would use its violence to affect the players, to prompt emotional revulsion at what they were doing. This would not be a game about mindless self-indulgence and power fantasy, it would be about taking the human condition to the breaking point and pushing it over the line. This would be a game that wouldn’t necessarily be “fun” to play in the traditional sense, but it would be compelling in the way that Greek tragedies were.

Well, they succeeded.

In Spec Ops: The Line the opulent city of Dubai has become the world’s most expensive disaster zone as the mother of all sandstorms tore through the pride of the Arabian peninsula. Colonel John Konrad and the 33rd Battalion stayed behind to assist with the evacuation. For six months nothing was heard from them until a looped radio broadcast from Konrad warns that the evacuation was a total failure and the death toll “too high.” You play as the Delta Force operator Captain Martin Walker who has been ordered on a reconnaissance mission into Dubai to determine the status of Konrad, the 33rd, and any survivors.

Instead you find Hell incarnate.

This wasn’t in the brochure.

The story is on full display here and Spec Ops proves what can be accomplished when game developers put pen to paper and actually put a modicum of effort into the story. Sure things like the graphical details, multiplayer, and even the third-person cover based shooting take a backseat, but those sacrifices are well worth the result. There is a line that runs through The Line and it’s an arc. A character arc. The three friends and compatriots, moral high and cracking dumb jokes you meet in the beginning of Chapter 1 are not the same pissed off, cursing, bleeding and battered shells you see at Chapter 13. This isn’t just a plot, this isn’t just some collection of things that happen from title sequence to end credits, this is a story. And its conclusion is one of the most satisfying I’ve seen in quite a while.

Choice is a core element to the campaign of The Line, but so what, don’t you see choice in a lot of games? Mass Effect, inFAMOUS and Deus Ex where all about choice as well, so what makes Spec Ops so special? Mainly because Spec Ops never takes the core shooting mechanics away from you, pulls a dialogue wheel or menu in front of you face, and then asks you if you want to be good or evil, Paragon or Renegade. Instead it embeds its decisions into the standard shooting mechanics of the game, and in doing so gives players far more freedom than those other games like to proudly boast about. Let me give you an example.

The scene is a highway, once the major artery of the city, bustling with life and energy, now almost completely buried by the desert sands, lines of broken down, subsumed automobiles line left hand side, a testament to tragedy. Hanging from an overpass, bound by their hands, are two men, and on both sides, hiding in the dunes, are four former US Army snipers. A voice on the radio informs you that one of the men is a water-thief, a criminal of the highest order sentenced to death. The other is a member of the 33rd whose fervent application of justice resulted in the death of the water-thief’s whole family. Both are crimes worthy of death. You have the gun, so who will you kill?

In most other games you would be given a choice that’s not a choice at all. Some manner of dialogue box or message would appear, forcing you to choose. If the developers were particularly blind to their own mechanic they might even assign moral values to the choices based on their own arbitary dichotomy. But in The Line once the cutscene ends gameplay as usual resumes, and suddenly you realize that you are capable of doing more. Sure you can kill one of the men. Hell you can kill both of them. But you can refuse and simply walk away, you can coordinate your squad and try to kill the snipers. Or you can shoot the ropes, set the men free and try to save them from the snipers.

Captain Walker at the end of the game. Broken, bleeding, and pissed-off.

Other moments like this punctuate the game, filling the void once all the running and gunning has died down. Other times it’s scenes of the three Delta Force operators interacting. In these scenes you will see none of the macho bravado that permeates other shooters. Delta Force reacts at first with horror, then regret, and finally anger when the smoke dies down and the enemies have been left lying in puddles of their own blood. When you first have to shoot it out with former American soldiers no one is happy with how that turned out, rationalizations of self-defense are the only things that silences talk of surrender.

If there is a moral theme to Spec Ops it is not one of good or evil, or even freedom over order. It’s about pragmatism vs idealism. Both of your squad mates, Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo act like your conscience, arguing with each other over the course of your decisions. While none of their points are ever clear cut and there’s always a silver lining, their dialogue can always be boiled down to the conflict over what you need to do (pragmatism), over what you should do (idealism). You need to save the CIA contact so you can find the people in charge, but you should save the lives of all those civilians as its the whole point to your mission. And just like the scene with the hanging men at the overpass, this choice is also made within the core mechanics of the game.

So here is my recommendation: buy Spec Ops. Yager have made an incredible effort here, it is well worth your time if you consider yourself a fan of games, and frankly, it would be a mortal sin to see a developer this brilliant and innovative to go under. Then once you have finished it, play it again. See if there are other ways. Try and hunt down every piece of intel, as their contribution as expository and world building devices belie another advantage games have over other storytelling mediums. The recorded conversation you can pick up between Konrad and the Radioman contains more character development than all his broadcasts from the entire game. See if you can find all the subtle clues that build up to the game’s mind-bending finale. And maybe even try see where you draw the line, and where you cross it.

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In my spare time, which I have oddles of seeing that college only prepares you for a career, not unemployment, I have been writing a campaign for D&D. This is something I’ve actually never done before, which is odd in retrospect. The reason I like video games is because they are an exciting way to deliver an interactive narrative, but that’s not really true. In fact if we really want to have a truly interactive narrative then video games, by their very nature, are pretty limited.  This is something a lot of both game fans and game designers underestimate. I’m sure going into Mass Effect 3 BioWare envisioned a grandiose, sprawling narrative that would branch into hundreds of uniquely tailored endings, only to realize that there’s basically no way they can code, render, animate, model, texture, write, and voice act all that. Meanwhile marketing doesn’t get the memo and continue doing their job, lying about the product so people will buy it. But on pen-and-paper, where the only limit is the collective imagination of a group (plus the game rules) we really can do a story that’s completely and wholly interactive. Where players can make any kind of character they want, not having to decide between a nice guy or a bad guy.

So yes I’ve been having a lot of fun writing my campaign, and it’s given me a chance to reflect on the nature of writing an interactive story. There’s a quote I like from The Art and Making of Star Wars: The Old Republic about writing in games versus other media that goes something like this: Writing for theater is expressionism, writing for movies is realism, and writing for games is cubism. You have to be able to take it apart and look at it from all the angles. I’ve discovered that that’s very true, writing an interactive narrartive is a lot trickier because you can’t just ask yourself “What would my character do” you have to consider what other people would do. This forces you to write three or five different scenarios, and for a tabeltop RPG, while giving yourself enough wiggle room to improvise once your players do something completely unexpected, which they will. That for me hasn’t been a problem, I’m good at improvising and I understand that as a DM I’m not telling a story, I’m facilitating the story of someone else. What I did learn about writing this was how to use themes to tie all the different modules and adventures together, so they feel like a cohesive story and not a bunch of stuff that happens.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its HBO adaptation Game of Thrones. I’m sure you’re also familiar with how it has a million plots going on at once, and yet it somehow manages to still read like a story. What makes it A Song of Ice and Fire and not A Song of a Bunch of Stuff That Happens. Well there’s two tricks, the first is that most of the plots do tie in and influence one another, but the other is way Martin uses a solid core of a few select themes to tie all these scenes and plots together. The most obvious one is power, and in every scene in the TV show you can see how power is used, who has it, who doesn’t have it. Who gains power, usurps it, wields it, and how our expectations of who should and should not have power get subverted. Or even look at The Hunger Games. There’s a reason why it’s called that, and it has something to do with the fact that there are at least five references to food on nearly every page of that book. Part of the reason those books are so good is because of how well crafted they are, how deliberate their writing is.

I’ve applied that same deliberance to my own campaign. I decided very early on, before I started writing modules, that there were going to be at the very least three themes that should be explored in each adventure, to ensure that there is a constant tone that glues these different scenes into a cohesive narrative, one that can survive players making their own decisions and driving the narrative forward. This is hard, but it’s not impossible. Like I said, A Song of Ice and Fire and The Hunger Games were deliberately written, I just have to be even more deliberate.

This is where I want to steer the topic to the matter of why so many games have bad writing. I’ve even argued with someone who was convinced that the interactive nature of games made trying to use them to tell a story impossible, it just couldn’t be done. I was not convinced but that at all, I’ve already written on here previously why I think Mask of the Betrayer has the best story in a video game. It’s because that game had three, very deliberate themes that were explored in very single scene and module. Hell they actually hired a guy whose job it was to go through and make sure that everything included in the game matched those themes, if they didn’t, they were reworked or removed. This is also the reason why I’m LP’ing Planescape: Torment (the first real update will be out later this week), because nearly everything included in that game deals with the theme of torment in some way. What can change the nature of a man isn’t just a way to beat the very definite final boss, it’s what the whole things is about and every scene explores a possible answer to that question. Even if you don’t realize the game is doing that, you have to admit that there is still something at work keeping the story cohesive, how the writers are able to make a linear story out of a non-linear experience.

Games whose stories fall flat simply don’t do this. There are many reasons why but usually it’s because game designers don’t take college level creative writing classes (like I did) while getting their game design or computer science degrees. For example the desingers behind the Uncharted series have admitted that they first decide what set pieces they want their game to explore, and then go back and write a narrative tying them together after the fact. This is not a good way to write a story and while it explains why all of the Uncharted games have flat, uncompelling narratives and characters, it doesn’t explain the strangely specific ways they repeat themselves. Like their habit of introducing a side-kick who gets tons of depth and character development only to wholly disappear from the story half-way through. Or the way each game introduces a potential love interest for Nathan Drake only for him to always wind up with the same blonde chick at the end. I think we can just chalk those up to laziness.

Ah there’s the crux of the matter, laziness is what kills more game stories than anything else. It’s not that games make it impossible to write good stories, it’s that people who write for games are interested in putting in the effort to make the stories good. Sometimes, like in Skyrim they don’t even realize they’re using themes that sabotage their own narrative. Remember how some people got mad that they couldn’t kill kids in Skyrim and Bethesda defended their decision to disallow the murder of children because they wanted to make sure their game had a cohesive tone the whole time. After all in Skyrim you’re a hero, you save the world from an evil black dragon. Except, if I’m supposed to be a hero, why does so much of the game’s side content deal with me killing people for obviously evil forces for no other reason then because they tell me to? In Skyrim there is a side-quest for every one of the Daedric Princes, and about 95% of them are evil. Openly, unquestioningly evil. And they make you preform acts of evil for the promise of material reward. This is not heroic behavior people. Hell even the main quest is dubious at best, since even an evil person can recognize that stopping the dragons from destroying the world is basic self-preservation. Honestly at this point not being able to kill children creates more of a tonal dissonance than killing them.

By the way Bioshock explores this is exact same thing, only Bioshock was aware of the fact it was a game about killing people for no other reason then because someone told you to.

Where I Draw The Line

I want to start this blog off with a quote. I’m not going to cite it just yet because I’m going to do this thing where I blow your mind at the end. So here it is.

“We talk so much about how video games are art. But at the same time the violent video discussion comes up and get people up in arms saying violent video games don’t affect me, they aren’t a big deal. If video games are art they have to affect us. The truth of the matter is violent video games, whether subconscious or not, affect us in some way. I wanted this game to affect you in the way it really made you think about the violence you are inflicting in the world and you’re thinking about the characters going through that.”

This quote sums up why I’m where doing what I’m doing. I write this blog because I believe that video games, being the first visual and interactive story telling medium, have the capacity to affect us just as strongly if not stronger than a novel or a film. Let me give you an example of what I mean. This is from the Deus Ex: Human Revolution DLC expansion The Missing Link. By the way, Human Revolution inspite of its very known and talked about flaws, was still hands down my favorite game of 2011 for this upcoming reason. Seriously, go play The Missing Link; it had all the best parts of Human Revolution with none of the bad stuff.  It’s a standalone too, so you don’t even need to buy the full game (but you should also do that too). This will involve spoilers so if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want spoilers, well, too bad. I need to do this to make my point so I can blow your mind.

In The Missing Link Adam Jensen gets caught in his little stow away attempt from the main game and is brought to a black site detention facility where you discover that the facility exists to run human genetic and augmentation experiments. All of the “prisoners” are innocent people detained on vacation simply because they had the right or wrong genetic markers. You eventually manage to find a scientist there willing to blow the whistle on the whole thing to the U.N. but then the bad guy running the facility finds out and tries to the scrap the whole project by killing everyone with cyanide gas. The mysterious hacker who has been helping you throughout The Missing Link tells you that there’s no way to shut the gas off, you can only reroute it to either the cell blocks or the lower section where the whistle blower is.

And so we come to our choice. There is no clear good or evil option, no morality bar, no reward beyond advancing the game. All you have is a button, a video a screen of people choking, and ticking clock. Do you save the whistle blower or the prisoners, all of whom are innocent people? I saved the game, put it down and thought about what I was going to do for nearly thirty minutes. When I came back I made my decision, and in doing so I learned a little about myself. I learned that even though I like to think that I’m pragmatic and pride myself on how I can “make choices free of emotions” (this is something I’ve said) I realized that when it comes down to the line, 1,000 human lives is worth more to me than a single, albeit far more important person, even if they’re all fictional, and I think this has made me a better person in realizing this.

If this sounds familiar it’s because you watched Extra Credits (good for you), and more specifically you watched their episode “Enriching Lives”. Like the guys there I believe that games can enrich our existence just as much as any other form of art can. But unlike the example they used, The Missing Link actually did embed its choice in the mechanics of the game, like a good game should. I believe that the stage of video games perception as immature entertainment for children is coming to a close, possibly within the next ten years. So let’s go back to that quote because it’s very telling of the direction the industry is starting to take.

It’s from Walk Williams; he’s the lead writer on the upcoming 2K shooter Spec Ops: The Line. If you remember the Spec Ops games then Jesus Christ you have good memory for crappy titles. The Spec Ops franchise was a series of budget military shooters for the Playstation that shriveled up and died along with that console ten years ago. They were the games you bought when Rainbow Six was sold out. Now it’s being reinvented into something I doubt anyone thought was possible with a pedigree like that. Spec Ops: The Line is a game about three soldiers being sent into the city of Dubai after global warming (I think) created the mother of all sandstorms and it kicked the shit out of this shining example of human opulence. From its screenshots you’d think it’s another hopelessly brown and gritty game about shooting terrorists in a middle-eastern city, a concept we’ve only seen a hundred billion times already.

But Walk Williams and the rest of the guys at Yager Development want to do something more with this game. They want to take that kind of moment I described having with The Missing Link and embed it into the entire experience of the game. From what I understand you’re not even fighting terrorists, most of your enemies are former US marines under the command of the main character’s mentor who’s going bat shit crazy, attacking US troops on sight and burning civilians alive with white phosphorus. How many games have the balls to make you shoot at American solders? Spec Ops: The Line wants you to be affected by its violence, and create the same kind of disgust and horror in its audience that books like Heart of Darkness and films like Apocalypse Now! were able to do. The way will do so is right there in its title, the theme of The Line. This is a game that’s going to make you draw a line in the sand on where you stand regarding decency and human life, and then do everything in its power to make you cross that line, and in the process, help you learn who you really are. This is a game that’s not going to be fun, but it will be engaging.

Games receive a lot of flak for being violent, and for understandable reasons. After all even if it’s completely fictional, there is still something messed up about saying how you enjoy decapitating hundreds of people an hour for fun and then say it doesn’t affect you at all. That sounds like the kind of thing a sociopath, not a functional member of society should say. So what I’ve always wanted was a game that wanted its violence not to be fun, but engaging, the same way playing Silent Hill isn’t really fun (it’s scary as hell and  the controls are awful) but it’s engaging. So now we come to the part where I blow your mind. 2012 is going to see a lot of important games: Mass Effect 3, Guild Wars 2, I Am Alive and hopefully The Last Guardian. But if Spec Ops: The Line succeeds on its promise, then a brown, third-person, cover-based, modern military shooter, might be the most important game to come out this year. And if it fails, then at least I know it will have failed through ambition, something this industry needs more of. I hope to get my hands on this once its nebulous release date is set, and see where I draw the line.