Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later

EDGE - - GAMES SECTIONS - STEVEN POOLE Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­poole.net

Steven Poole ponders the cur­rent state of writ­ing in videogames

Videogame writ­ing has come on a lot, hasn’t it? Play­ers love their epic sci-fi or fan­tasy sto­ries, and the scope of the lore buried within their worlds. Ev­ery­one wants to cel­e­brate the devel­op­ment of the medium into a so­phis­ti­cated en­gine of lu­dic nar­ra­tive. So when the Amer­i­can writer Michael Thom­sen pub­lished a scep­ti­cal re­view of Un­charted 4 in the Washington Post, the back­lash was se­vere. Fans scram­bled to sign an e-pe­ti­tion de­mand­ing that Me­ta­critic re­move this re­view, along with the ar­bi­trary 40% score as­signed to it. The voice of Nathan Drake him­self, Troy Baker, tweeted a link to the pe­ti­tion, and then tweeted a sort of apol­ogy. In the emo­tion­ally brit­tle world of videogames, some­one had once again done some­thing sim­ply un­ac­cept­able.

What re­ally en­raged the fans was a sin­gle line in Thom­sen’s thought­ful and in­ter­est­ing re­view. “The Un­charted games,” he had writ­ten, “have never ex­celled at sto­ry­telling.” Wait, what? But Un­charted has al­ways been cel­e­brated pre­cisely for its sto­ry­telling. In the spirit of sol­i­dar­ity, I got in touch with Thom­sen – who had sto­cially en­dured Twit­ter abuse and com­plaints from Sony to his edi­tor (“In cul­ti­vat­ing videogame com­mu­ni­ties around fan­dom rather than open cri­tique,” he re­marks, “pub­lish­ers and de­vel­op­ers help feed into these kinds of re­ac­tionary out­bursts of abuse”) – to check whether he just hates story-driven games. Ac­tu­ally he doesn’t, men­tion­ing games such as Twi­light Princess and Ci­bele. But I agree with him about the Un­charted games, and it points to some­thing deeper go­ing on in mod­ern dis­agree­ments about game writ­ing. Most games are far too long, for a start, and no one has the time in the av­er­age dev pe­riod to write an amount of nar­ra­tive that could com­pare qual­ity-wise with two sea­sons of a top ca­ble-TV drama such as The Amer­i­cans. But a more pro­found prob­lem is that when we talk about a game’s “writ­ing”, we are fo­cus­ing ex­clu­sively on a small sub­set of what is re­ally at stake aes­thet­i­cally.

Peo­ple tend, for ex­am­ple, not to think of struc­tural el­e­ments – such as back­track­ing or en­forced farm­ing – as part of a game’s writ­ing. But if the whole game is sup­posed to be con­sumed as a “story”, then these as­pects of its ex­pe­ri­ence are key parts of the story struc­ture just as much as what­ever hap­pens in cutscenes. Thom­sen agrees: “Many crit­ics of­ten iso­late a very spe­cific kind of sto­ry­telling, such as in the Un­charted se­ries, which I would de­scribe as the­atri­cal more than cin­e­matic, in­vested in the idea of ora­tion and ex­po­si­tion, and as tech­nol­ogy has ad­vanced, fa­cial an­i­ma­tion/emot­ing.”

In games as in film or tele­vi­sion, how­ever, the ar­chi­tec­ture of the story and the rhythm of its de­liv­ery is just as much part of the writ­ing as sin­gle lines of witty di­a­logue. In

Un­charted 4, the long-no­ticed dis­junc­tion be­tween the per­son we are sup­posed to take Nathan Drake to be in the cutscenes (ami­able, thought­ful) and the per­son we make him while play­ing (psy­cho­pathic mass killer) is a fault in the writ­ing, even if one be­lat­edly ac­knowl­edged by the de­sign­ers (a ‘Ludonar­ra­tive Dis­so­nance’ tro­phy awaits play­ers who kill 1,000 en­e­mies). But there’s more: the fact that the pi­rates guarded their se­crets with sim­ple tile-ro­ta­tion puz­zles; the te­dious crate-seek­ing; the late in­crease in bul­let-sponge en­e­mies; the fact that the game rou­tinely forces you to try some­thing even though you are scripted to fail – these are all faults in the writ­ing, too. Per­haps the most for­giv­able faults are those that arise from im­pos­si­ble am­bi­tion. In a mar­ket, I lis­ten to a long con­ver­sa­tion in French be­tween three men look­ing at their bro­k­endown car. It’s a lovely throw­away de­tail. But it makes the fact that I can­not in­ter­ject or of­fer to help them all the stranger.

None of this is in­tended to dis­count the ex­pe­ri­ence of peo­ple who have sin­cerely en­joyed the Un­charted games as a nar­ra­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. Nathan and Sam do ex­change many funny lines. Nathan does have amaz­ing hair. And se­ri­ously, as an ex­er­cise in sheer vista-mak­ing, Un­charted 4 is an aes­thetic land­mark. (That’s why I’m still play­ing it af­ter 16 chap­ters, for the sheer thrill of see­ing what is around the next cor­ner.) But if we are go­ing to praise the writ­ing in high­pro­file games we ought to pay them the re­spect of hold­ing them to the same high stan­dards as other gen­res. Un­charted 4 is many good things but it is not well-writ­ten. I sus­pect that the fans who be­come apoplec­tic and de­mand a news­pa­per un­pub­lish a bad re­view se­cretly know this too.

In the emo­tion­ally brit­tle world of videogames, some­one had once again done some­thing sim­ply un­ac­cept­able

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