I nearly wept when I read the headline from The Escapist’s Shamus Young’s article a few months back. It read:
Oh how that wounded me. Luckily I read the story before writing a rage filled, tear stained letter to Mr. Young. The article was about how game reviewers often don’t have time to review a game’s story and take it into consideration when giving out scores. That said, however, the sentiment “the story doesn’t matter” is one I’ve seen expressed quite a lot in the gaming community. People focus on the graphics, the gameplay, the sounds, hell they even rate the authenticity of what weapons appear in the latest Modern Warfare game. The story though…a lot of gamers seem to be able to take it or leave it. Obviously even the greatest story in the world will go to waste if the gameplay is horrible, but to say the story doesn’t matter?
I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, since most of you began following this blog expressly because Mass Effect 3’s story fell flat on its face in the final moments. So clearly you all know stories are important. So instead of talking about why stories are important, I’m going to show you two games that had awesome stories…that were never told. The stories that, had the game focused just a little more on telling, would have elevated those games from simply good to god damn outstanding.
North Korea has taken time from their busy schedule of launching faulty rockets to invade a small island in the south Pacific where a scientific expedition has uncovered alien artifacts. Over the course of the game the player encounters strange alien machines that are killing your team members and using their giant floating ice machines to freeze most of the once tropical island. The aliens themselves look like something from the bottom of the ocean that, somehow, still aren’t as scary as the fucking Angler fish.
Unfortunately the aliens are merely a vehicle to show off the incredible graphics that Crysis boasts, which is a shame. They show up, the wreck some shit up, freeze it for good measure, and then leave. Their motives and history are left conspicuously absent from the story. Which is a shame because I think it was the aliens that most fascinated me and gave the game a chance to be something truly unique. In the final hour of the game, the shit officially hits the fan and the aliens begin waking up all over the island. The game ends with thousands of aliens soaring into the air and sinking an entire US carrier group.
And then the story loses it’s mind in the second game as it tries to combine the plots of Contagion (an epidemic sweeps New York and the world), District 9 (out of control PMC), the X-files (old guy discovering alien technology at Tunguska…I think, I lost track of the plot around this point), and Source Code bizarrely enough (the main character has his mind erased by the conciousness of the previous occupant of the nanosuit). The aliens that were once unique and truly, well…alien, are replaced by your run of the mill half-robot half-alien super-soldiers with the requisite red glowing eyes and ships. What’s worse is that the game takes place several years after the first, which ends with a god damn nuke going off and an entire US naval fleet getting sunk. Somehow that just escapes the public’s attention? Not one person raised an eyebrow? And what happened to the thousands of aliens we see flying off the island after the close of the first game?
It’s none of our business apparently, because not only does the game not answer these questions, the plot of Crysis 2 is so god damn convoluted that I no longer knew what the hell was going on by the time I was done. I was so confused that Central Park floating in the air seemed normal to me by that point, I wasn’t even mildly surprised watching it ascend into the air on a bed of alien tentacles.
How it could have gone:
Now a lot of people hated the aliens in Crysis for one very simple reason: Navigating the alien spaceship was a royal pain in the ass. It was interesting from a visual point of view since it gave the player great insight into the psychology of the aliens, if you could just glide through the air would you bother with floors and hallways? No, you’d make the whole thing a fluid, organic system that is specifically designed to make it ideal for three dimensional movement. Unfortunately, being human, it was incredibly easy to get lost in the alien ship and that’s never good in a game. I know I spent ten minutes or so wandering aimlessly through the ship. Instead of fixing the issues with these aliens, they decided to just change them all into something else. There was potential for a good story with the Crysis aliens. There’s none for the new Crysis 2 aliens.
The level where you’re in the alien space ship is what convinced me that these aliens had story potential because the first alien I encountered in the ship merely floated in front of me, as if it were curious about me. Maybe this was some kind of bug, but if it was then it’s a great bug from a storytelling point of view. Are the aliens truly aggressors or are they merely curious? All the previous encounters with their technology during the game are brief and violent, with the machines dragging off our comrades into the jungle and killing them, but what if that wasn’t intentional? I mean haven’t we all accidentally broken something because we handled it too roughly? Maybe our big squishy bodies are surprisingly easy to hurt when you’re piloting a giant flying metal squid. When the aliens finally grab Prophet, he not only survives but manages to escape.
Okay, so maybe it’s not likely, but it’s possible and it’s that possibility that could have made for an interesting story. Given the state of the alien ship, heavily damaged and left buried for thousands of years, it makes sense that these aliens probably just crashed here. Imagine for a moment that a bunch of humans crashed on an alien world, what would be standing order number 1? To survive, that’s what. To hell with the native population and ecology, we need to survive long enough for either help to arrive or begin terraforming the planet to suit our needs. In the version of the story I have in my head when I play Crysis (shut up I’m not crazy), that’s exactly the situation these aliens are in. Some human scientists decided to hit the wrong fucking button on their ship, waking up the aliens in their stasis pods (which you can see in the ship actually) and the ship is so badly damaged that it is beyond salvaging. They’re trying to survive on a planet that clearly isn’t habitable to them (the dome they create around their ship is cold enough to flash freeze everyone in a ten mile radius) and a bunch of angry natives keep shooting at them.
The results of the aliens altering the environment is that now mankind is in danger of going extinct as well, putting both sides in the position of fighting to the bitter, bloody end. This could have made a compelling story because instead of the generic “alien’s are evil” theme that’s been beaten to death, it’s simply a matter of survival. The alien’s don’t want to be killing us, but they also don’t want to die. In the third and final game, when humanity emerges victorious (because don’t they always?), it would be a hollow victory because in the end you know you’ve wiped out a civilization. You’ve killed off a species that had its own culture, its own hopes, and a rich history now permanently lost.
It had to be done for the survival of the human race, but in the end, we all lose. Of their like, we will never see again.
Far Cry 2
You play a mercenary who’s been hired by the CIA to kill someone called the Jackal, who is cutting into the CIA’s profit margin by selling weapons to both sides of the civil war at incredibly cheap rates. You then go through a game doing…things…that have no context because the game is completely devoid of characters.
No I’m serious, this game had NO characters. It had NPCs that would say a couple lines of dialogue, but that’s it. We didn’t know why they were there, who they were before this, and they didn’t change through the course of the game. About midway through the game you’re given a mission to assassinate the leader of one of the factions, and you know what? This could have been an absolutely amazing mission to play through…if we’d been given the chance to get to know the guy. Unfortunately we don’t, and in travelling from point to point in Far Cry 2 takes so long that by the time I got to the cabin where the guy was staying, I forgot which faction he was part of. I didn’t even remember the name of the guy who gave me the mission.
This was probably the biggest loss, because Far Cry 2 had the power to illuminate an issue that is very real, and is still occurring today: Africa is fucked. That’s the only way to put it, whether it be AIDS running rampant through the population, starvation on a massive scale, or bloody civil wars and genocide, Africa is in big trouble. Obviously Far Cry 2 wasn’t going to spur a revolution or anything, but it had the ability to give us a unique view of the situation. Something no newspaper, documentary or movie could do. Allow us to vicariously experience the horrors of Africa through the character. I’m not going to insult those who’ve suffered through that kind of violence by saying we’d experience even a fraction of the real thing, but placing us in control of a character in a similar situation will often put us in their mindset. What would we do? What will we do? That’s what games allow a player to do, intimately experiencing a story in a way no other medium can.
So what story was Far Cry 2 trying to tell us? Well…basically exactly what I described. The trouble was that they completely neutered the horror by making everything very…safe, I guess is the word I would use. Despite being in the heart of Africa, all the enemies you encounter are mercenaries who are predominately white and from either America or South Africa. There are occasional black enemies, but even then they generally speak English. In the end, there’s nothing that offends our sensibility as players, the average gamer has probably already killed a million faceless human NPCs. The reason I think Far Cry 2 shied away from this was fear of creating a controversy, and that is never a good reason to avoid telling a story.
Think about it for a moment. Imagine you’re playing a mission in Far Cry 2, you kill a couple dozen mercenaries in a house, and then as you enter the final room of the building…you find a child on the other side. A child wielding an AK-47, and fully prepared to shoot you. I know that, personally, I would be stunned into inaction for a few moments. Do you try and talk him down? Or do you shoot a ten year old boy before he can shoot you?
If during the course of a mission you see a village of people getting slaughtered by the people who hired you, do you turn a blind eye or do you forfeit your payment and save them? Could you imagine finally managing to kill the last guy only to find that the entire village had been killed in the crossfire? That could have been a master stroke in the game, highlighting the futility and savagery of the conflicts over there. The possibilities here were endless. Of course you’d get the stupid idiots on TV saying “Far Cry 2 Promotes Child Killing” and the usual punditry, but that’s a small price to pay for experiencing a truly magnificent story.
Let us get down in the dirt a little, show us entire villages being wiped out by the player’s employer, or forcing the player to choose between using his malaria medicine to save someone else or keep it all for himself. Let’s see the child soldiers that are tragically brainwashed into fighting. Let Far Cry 2’s character becoming something less than human by making him go through the worst atrocities on the planet, and let us see his slowly deteriorating mind.
Tell me a story that means something.