Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Integration of writing and gameplay in video games

One of the biggest problems with video games, structurally  is just plain awful writing in the gameplay parts. Sometimes games can have quite brisk acting and quality writing in the cutscenes, but it's like no one wants to apply any real critical thinking to the game elements.  I might be bitching about this one for a while, because it's really hard to miss when you think about it. Woe is me for thinking about it!

I've started Hitman: Redemption. First, the title. I don't think anyone really considered what redemption means because, apparently, it's compatible with killing cops. Let's lay that one straight out. To protect an abused young woman the character somehow rationalizes killing cops. Not even corrupt cops, just any old, plain, ordinary in-your-way police officer is likely to get his throat slit – in the tutorial of the game, you're required to do this.  You can't avoid it.

Here's another example of baffling bad writing for the purpose of creating gameplay. Your character was KO'd and framed for a murder, and the hotel room was set on fire. Somehow, in the tiny number of minutes that it takes for a fire to spread, a detective was dispatched to the scene . . . and outside is a helicopter that seems to know YOU'RE THE GUILTY PARTY. That's okay, because in all the building surrounding the hotel, there are squads – multiple – of cops in them, including an abandoned library and then a maze-like, I dunno, drug bust?

It's the sort of thing that doesn't hold up to a moment's thought. When a murder is called in, yes, police are sent. Like, one or two. I know because I have, personally, reported a shooting. Cops take the description of the shooter, in this case, and drive around the neighborhood looking for the guy. This often works. Most people are not, after all, experts at disguise and stealth.

There was no helicopter. No police occupied deserted buildings nearby. A shooting is a very serious crime, right?  And there was actual evidence of a crime - the shot man.

Of course, sometimes police do surround a building with armored dudes with assault rifles. Absolutely. But generally as a planned raid or as a developing armed stalemate. That was not this situation.

Indeed, the fire would have vastly complicated any potential murder investigation. The person's throat was slit and then you set them on fire?  Are you a fucking moron? And then, because it's a video game and must be ridiculous, the building explodes. It would take days for the fire department to uncover any bodies at all, much less determine how they died . . . assuming it was possible, assuming the fire and explosions and collapsing building didn't destroy the corpse past the point of useful examination. At most, the protagonist would be a person of interest in the investigation because it would take some time – days – to determine if a crime had been committed at all.

After all, all the cops I had to kill to escape, well, I hide their bodies and no one saw me. What does the word "redemption" mean?

In subsequent play, too, there are cops everywhere who are still, apparently, looking solely for you. They are located in tunnels underneath abandoned buildings, they are on the rickety top floors of other abandoned buildings. There is literally no place where the police are not looking for you.

This is stupid. I understand what they're doing. It's a stealth game. You need people looking for you for there to be any, well, stealth. I think, though, that if you have to have people behave stupidly in order to put them in your game, you're not trying very hard. And, really, this one is just a goddamn gimmee. Have the missions be about infiltrating the dens of drug lords and crime bosses, or military bases, or whatever. Places that it is reasonable for there to be armed, alert security. But to imagine a world where every police officer in Chicago is looking for you, specifically for you, in places that it is both unlikely that your character – or anyone – would be, not to mention dangerous to be in, don't do that.

I think it will be some years, yet, before most games integrate story and play together. Some of the more successful games along this line has been done by Bioware, going back to The Knights of the Old Republic and straight on through to the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games. Though not done as seamlessly, the Bethesda – Skyrim and Fallout – seem to be trying the same thing. And for years, often with shockingly poor implementation, Japanese role-playing games have tried that, too.  But, right now, not even most computer role-playing games work to actually write the action scenes as much as the cutscenes.

But I long for a day when there it is routine to have guys at the office saying, “Why did the building explode? Did someone have a collection of oil soaked rags in there? Perhaps a collection of half-full gasoline cans and det cord?” There is no excuse for it, regardless of the type of game. If you want exploding buildings, put the action in a place where one might believe the building would explode – a chemical factory or fuel depot, the kind of places where explosions occur. Or make sure that the building being rigged with explosives is part of the plot. Something. It's not that hard. Or all the things that happen in video games, writing is among the absolute cheapest. You don't need buildings full of machines rendering 3D graphics, you don't need a hundred interns doing motion tracking or anything like that, it's just a few guys in a room with caffeine and laptops. It's even cheaper than music in video games. The cost would be superficial to the end cost of the game and you would produce a superior product.

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