I’ve been under the weather, so I played through Rise of the Tomb Raider to pass the time rather than dwelling on how awful I’ve felt. It made me think about why writing for video games is so bad.
Don’t get me wrong: Rise of the Tomb Raider is an excellent game. While I’ll be using it for purposes of illustration, because I’ve just played it, many games commit far worse literary sins than Rise of the Tomb Raider. There will be spoilers under the cut to illustrate my various points about the awful writing in video games.
First, though this is the lesser sin, is that almost all video games feel obligated to make the stakes the “end of the world.” I grasp the rationale, of course. Saving the world is the one thing almost all gamers will agree is a good idea. Any other plot will have at least some of the players asking why it needs to be done. Recently, the Call of Duty franchise got a little heat because of their slogan, “Make American Nazi-Free Again.” Apparently, some gamers thought it was a political statement – though blasting digital Nazis essentially invented the first person shooter! Meaning, I grasp the reason why video game writers force these ham-fisted attempts to make every enemy a mortal crisis for the world. I find it repetitive and banal, and believe it is unnecessary, but I understand.
I will dwell, then, on the second issue, which has no reason other than lack of vision and/or laziness: the extent to which the writing does not support the gameplay. Most video games don’t bother to explain why things are the way they are or force things in a ham-fisted manner.
Using Rise of the Tomb Raider as an example, there were two particularly odious places where the writing did not support the gameplay in ways I found highly vexing.
The first was in the Baba Yaga segment. It being Tomb Raider, it was possible that you would fight the Russian witch of legend. But, no, the game pulled a Scooby Do, and you learn shortly into the mission that “Baba Yaga” is an elderly woman with a grasp of folklore and some fear gas that would make the Scarecrow proud. She’s just a woman and a frail, old one at that.
At the end of the mission, when fighting her, well, apparently an old Russian woman is immune to gunfire. The game is explicit and tells you that you won’t be able to beat this old woman by merely shooting her in the head with an assault rifle.
Were it Baba Yaga, an immortal witch, I could accept that she was bulletproof. But because I knew that she was mortal, the inability for sustained gunfire from an AK-47 to harm her was inscrutable.
This is normal, though. Gamers have accepted that boss fights are brutally stupid. They look past the lack of narrative support or rationale for why, y’know, old women can absorb murderous gunfire. It happens all the time. Why can such-and-such a character – who is ostensibly human – soak up hundreds of bullets? Even though they’re just a soldier or mobster or whatever? Because that’s the way boss fights are and you’re not supposed to be critical about it!
I am. It’s lazy and lacks creativity.
I understand what Crystal Dynamics – the people making the recent Tomb Raider games – were doing. They were trying to prevent a boss fight where the main bad guy was a bullet sponge. By making the false Baba Yaga immune to gunfire, they forced the players to beat her in another way. I see that, and I approve of the decision from a game design point of view. But the inability to create a narrative justification for Baba Yaga’s immunity to gunfire vexed me the whole damn fight!
The final boss was with a fanatical zealot. Here, to prevent the player from doing everything they’ve done the whole game – line up a headshot – the protagonist was ambushed in a cutscene and takes her bow. Thus, Lara is disarmed.
Except… she’s not. The character has been consistently animated to be carrying a pistol. While not a consistent part of the animation, by that time the player also has a shotgun and a rifle in addition to the pistol and bow. Again, the narrative is disjointed from the gameplay. And, still, I see why they did it. They didn’t want this final boss to be a bullet sponge, and I heartily approve. But, again, they forced the way to defeat the final enemy too hard and contrary to the narrative and previous gameplay.
So, for instance, while deprived of your bow and guns, Lara Croft still has her ice axes. By the time of the last fight, you’ve spent hours using these to bash in the skulls of heavily armed and armored people ranging from commandos to undead Byzantine warriors in heavy armor. For some reason, this final boss, who is supposed to be a mortal man, is immune to an ice ax to the skull unless it is achieved through stealth. And he’s not even wearing a helmet! His skull is just plain ol’ ax-proof, I guess. And, even then, after doing a stealth finisher on this supposedly mortal man, he not only survives – the only person to survive a stealth finisher in the whole game – but then becomes immune to them, too. Now, he is totally invulnerable except to grenades you fashion from materials at hand.
I grasp the rationale for this. If the final boss were as easy to defeat as every other character in the game, the reasoning is that there would be no drama to it. Players would kill the tough badass and find that he wasn’t such a badass after all. And I am not arguing that be the case (at least, not here; IMO, boss fights can go away without any harm to the game). What I am arguing is that by making a mortal man and having him do things beyond the possibility of being a mortal man, well, that’s lazy, bad writing.
Lastly… cutscenes. Not cutscenes that exist for explication. Those are fine (though often poorly written, with hammy dialogue and scenery-stomping overacting) to develop character and story. But, gosh, in almost any video game out there, you’re going to be next to a chief boss and a cutscene will prevent you from doing what is obvious – killing the bastard then and there.
If my character has a high-powered rifle and all that stands between them and me is a little security glass – well, there’s no way that glass can stop a bullet from an elephant gun at close range. A few checkered wires are entirely insufficient to stop a modern bullet from all but the weakest of firearms! And if that wasn’t enough, my character had a grenade launcher on their rifle!
But, hey, there’s got to be this cliched scene where the bad guy taunts the hero from a position of invulnerability.
Rise of the Tomb Raider was particularly bad in this regard. Several times, Lara had the drop on the top bad guys and the weapons to kill them. Seriously, she had grenades, poison gas, and several powerful weapons. She had been shown to be utterly merciless in getting to this point – stealth killing dozens of guards, and dozens more in open combat. But when she was in a position to snipe, poison, or bomb the leaders of a fanatically religious paramilitary organization looking to kill her and hundreds of innocent people, some stupid, inane cut scene prevents the character from doing it.
Likewise, you’ve finished off a boss and… cutscene to give them the last word.
Fuck their soliloquies. By the time you’re defeating a narratively important character, you should know why you’re doing it. And by this point in almost any game, one can’t imagine that scruples prevent the murder. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, by the time you’ve beaten Constantine, you’ve guided Lara Croft to kill hundreds of people without giving them a chance to speak. You’ve riddled them with bullets, arrows, poison gas, you’ve sent them on fire to die screaming, pushed them off of high places, drowned them in frigid water. You’ve likely booby-trapped the corpses of their fallen friends. Several of these acts are war crimes when committed by soldiers, and are certainly mass murder. In these games, Lara Croft is a terrible, terrible person, willing to kill hundreds of people who get in her way to steal something that doesn’t belong to her.
So, yeah, I’m not buying the idea that she has some compassion that stays her hand or particular interest in what an even worse excuse for a human being might tell her. It’s bad writing.
The overall effect, then, is to diminish video games as art. Part of being an artist – particularly in the narrative arts – is making sure that all the parts fit together. Each part of the story should make sense in relation to each other part of the story. Not only do video game designers don’t do that, no one seems to acknowledge that they SHOULD do it.
If while watching Return of the Jedi, in the final climactic lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth Vader, if Luke could hit Vader over and over and over again – for twenty minutes or more – with his lightsaber, the audience would go, “What happened? A few minutes earlier, lightsabers could cut through anything. Why is Darth Vader immune to being hit with a lightsaber?” However, if earlier in the movie, Vader had revealed that he has a lightsaber-resistant force field, we would like having been satisfied. We acknowledge that sort of device exists in Star Wars and that Vader might have access to it. Video game designers seem to have no notion that this is a desirable.
Narration is important. It is how we make sense not only of stories but our very lives. By failing to provide narratively significant reasons for the events in video games, video game designers are failing themselves and their audiences as artists.