Monday, June 17, 2013

Rating and Enjoying Games

I'm having a rough time of it this week, because I'm playing The Last of Us. Like Bioshock Infinite, it is a shitty game whose gamey gameness and shitty story execution gets in the way of a beautiful world. Like Bioshock Infinite it's basically adulated by everyone. Everyone loves this objectively shitty game because it has a great world.

... Maybe this started with MMORPGs. Maybe they made it acceptable.

Anyway, I don't like these games, and a big part of why I don't like them is the story. I don't like the gameplay, either, and to me the two are linked... but let's focus specifically on the story as written rather than the story as ruined by bugs and horrific murders to make the game "fun".

I have come up with a five star rating system, which I hope you will enjoy considering. Every star is its own star, rather than just being part of a numeric total.

Star 1: Are you playing as the most interesting character?

Many games introduce interesting characters, then make you play as the grimdark white guy. Now, when we say interesting, we mean across several axes. Both the character's story arc and their actual gameplay need to be considered. Also, the constraints of the story and game must be taken into consideration. For example, you can't say that Marcus from Gears of War is a bad choice because you would rather play as a helicopter or an alien brood queen or whatever. You can only say that Marcus is a bad choice if there is another character that could go through the same game world and overall plot, but have a more interesting time of it.

For example, in The Last of Us, you play as the exceedingly boring Grimdark mcNeedsNewGoldfish. He is so boring and his character arc so trite that the only thing that makes him vaguely interesting is his voice actor. In this game I can say, without a doubt, that he is the most boring choice of main character. Both socially and in terms of gameplay, he has the most boring and typical interactions. Given the extensive reliance on instant-death failure conditions, stealth, and ranged sniping, I think almost any other character could have walked the same world and plot arc without straining credulity. In fact, it would have felt scarier and less annoying if you were playing as a child instead of a big strong man that instantly dies and respawns to try again all the time.

So The Last of Us gets no star here.

On the other hand, in Bioshock Infinite the character you play is Grimdark mcNeedsNewGoldfish. Although identical in basically every detail, he is linked into the story at a pretty deep level. The plot would have to be changed considerably if you were going to play as someone else, and his nature as the destroyer of the floating city requires him to be some kind of big horrible combat monster. On the other hand, several characters are introduced that would have been more interesting to play. The same game from the perspective of the broken old commander, the leader of the rebellion, or the giant monster-bird would have all been at least as interesting gameplay-wise and more interesting in terms of characterization and novelty.

So I would give Bioshock Infinite half a star, here.

Star 2: Are you playing the story?

Most games have a serious problem with story/gameplay segregation. However, in this case we'll let some amount of that slide. We don't need the player to have control over the story in all aspects. But what we do need is a story that doesn't clash with the player's actions. For example, in Final Fantasy VI, you can't stop the world of ruin from emerging, even if you win every single fight. But nobody feels personally offended that it happened, because it was framed such that the player's actions couldn't possibly have prevented it.

On the other hand, in Mass Effect III you keep running into Grimdark mcSelfinsertninja who always arrives and leaves in cutscenes, making your characters look impossibly inept and only escaping because the game literally prevents you from firing at him. This is building a story on false pretenses: if you have to ignore what the player would do or did in order to make your story beat work, it doesn't work.

In Bioshock Infinite the story really railroads you, but there's only a few places where I felt the game was ignoring me. In The Last of Us, it was the same way, although I've not yet beaten it and they could drop the ball. In both games, you are actually playing the story, rather than playing a game while a story is dictated to you. The gameplay often makes zero sense, but I guess that's par for the course.

Star 3: Is the story culturally relevant?

Games are not known for their cultural relevance. Most games are, to put it lightly, willing participants in our culture's childish weaknesses. Putting it less lightly, games tend to be sexist, racist, ultra-violent, nationalistic, Madonna-fetish horrorshows. Like, um, Bioshock Infinite. The Last of Us isn't quite so bad, as it has some very believable women, children, and POC.

You can argue that there's nothing wrong with telling those stories, and I'll agree. But one of the things a professional story-teller does is understand the culture they are giving the story to. They don't have to make every story a counterculture masterpiece, but they do have to understand the sort of things their target culture is going through. A good story echoes the culture in such a way that it touches a part of the audience they didn't really realize they had.

This is the reason so many older books and stories don't interest young people. It's not because young people are uncultured - it's because they are in a different culture. The version of Snow White where the witch dances herself to death wearing red-hot iron shoes was something that spoke to the culture of that era, but in our culture it tends to make people go "uh... who are the good guys, again?"

In terms of cultural relevance, both Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us get half a star. They touch the popular culture with some interesting thoughts, but drop the ball by blindly perpetuating really boring white-bread machismo.

Star 4: Do people behave like people?

In many video games, people are only there to serve the needs of the story and be killed as required. They don't act like people.

Believe it or not, in most first person shooters, this is done well. While BLOPS characters have all the depth of cardboard, they are believable people. Most people also have the depth of cardboard, I guess.

On the other hand, in Bioshock Infinite only one person behaves like a person: the female lead. Everyone else in the game behaves like a caricature. Even if you argue for one of the zanier interpretations of the game world, it's bad writing. Nothing pulls me out of the game like someone randomly deciding to kill you because, um... you need to fight every single person you meet? So no star for Infinite.

The Last of Us had much more realistic people. I really felt these characters as people. They were pretty good. Even the faceless villains that you mow down because you're mysteriously incapable of climbing over a chest-high wall instead all felt like people. The only gotchas were the numerous bugs that resulted in people behaving in truly bizarre ways (strangling nothing, knocking over invisible vases, etc). But that's not a writing problem, that's a programming issue. So they get a star.

Star 5: Is the world immersive?

In both Infinite and The Last of Us the world was immersive. In fact, the only non-immersive thing about these games was their gameplay.

So they both get a star here.


So on my five-star story quality chart, Bioshock Infinite gets 3 stars and The Last of Us gets... 3 stars. That wasn't on purpose, but they come out roughly equal.

Notice all the things my stars don't include. Quality of writing. Voice acting. Coolness of plot twist.

Well, half of those are polish-related rather than part of the core story, and the other half are so subjective that they can't be rated. For example, I found Bioshick Infinite's "twist" painfully banal pseudo-philosophical fluff. So I don't include it.

Instead I explicitly frame the story in relation to the target culture and game, and ask questions about how well it performs in that specific situation. The answer for Infinite and The Last of Us is... better than average.


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