The plot device wife
Video games evolved beyond the fairytale ‘rescue the princess’, perhaps an attempt to tell more intelligent stories. The problem is that this evolution consists of using ‘loved ones’ as the new ubiquitous carrot on the stick for the protagonist. Usually in the form of wives.
We’re told they’re married. We don’t tend to know anything about this womacguffin or her relationship with the hero. We’re just told ‘wife’ and are expected to infer that as an instant explanation for why the hero loves her so much and is willing to stab Cthulu in the face to “get her back”.
Alan Wake was guilty of this too, despite actually giving Alice some traits and even showing her together with Alan in normality. She still just became another princess to rescue. While on the other hand Red Dead Redemption arguably sidestepped this problem.
Now, mainstream video games admittedly aren’t perfect for portraying complex romantic relationships. Unless you’re really into dating sims. But would it hurt to write a spouse as something other than motivation?
Halo 2 is the obvious and classic example of this, but I believe there are much worse offenders. Usually from the “We haven’t released the first game nor have we seen how its been received critically or commercially – but we’re doing a trilogy!” crowd.
That means you, Assassin’s Creed and Gears of War. Both with stories that leave more unexplained and unsatisfied than a season of Lost.
At the end of the first Gears of War the cartoonish heroes set off a bomb that destroys many of the underground tunnels of the Locust hordes. But rather than let the player savour this victory and have one of the heroes drop a line stating that despite this decisive blow, their enemies are still out there – we are treated to this monologue instead:
They do not understand. They do not know why we wage this war. Why we cannot stop. Will not stop. Why we will fight and fight and fight. Until we win, or we die…And we are not dead yet.
They literally throw this line in at the very end basically telling the player that they changed nothing and wasted the last eight hours. It’s narrated for no reason at all by the unseen Locust Queen to no one in particular.
The only purpose is to set up sequels and fruitlessly hint to something bigger in this still incredibly basic humans-versus-monsters story.
Now, compare that to the first Mass Effect which left a lot open for sequels, but managed to deliver a satisfying and fairly self-contained story.
Film/TV style endings
The ending of Mafia 2 was massively criticised as being not much of an ending at all. Despite having heard all this criticism I was personally surprised when I saw the ending. Seemed like a pretty classy way to close out the game.
But the big difference is I didn’t play it. I watched a Let’s Play of the game on YouTube. The ending of Mafia 2 works on a visual level – it would work if it was a film or a television show. The same applies to Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
In a film, you empathise and sympathise with the struggles of the protagonist. But in a game, those struggles are yours. That’s why these ‘open’ endings that take away the feeling of accomplishment don’t work in the interactive medium.
“Okay, we’ve almost finished the game. Now all we need is the climax. Well, let’s just make something big for the hero to punch to death! I think that’s, like, the law or something.”
The ‘final boss’ is an odd hurdle that games seem to have trouble with lately. From Batman: Arkham Asylum, to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, to even Mass Effect 2. All hastily write in something big and strong for you to kill and it’s never very fun.
The transformation into something bigger, or any other final boss cliché isn’t a formula every game has to stick to! You can end a game differently. Not only could it improve the narrative, but the narrative can shape the gameplay.
Red Dead Redemption once again provides a counter-example. The ‘final boss’ is a normal quickdraw duel down by a riverbank. You put a number of bullets into a normal human and his corpse hits the dirt. Credits roll. If you’ve played it, you know it was pitch perfect.
But hey, are there any other recurring plot flaws that you’re sick of seeing in games?