Sunday, July 10, 2016

Games Writing: Thematic Elements and Motifs

So, I've been playing a lot of games that get a lot of press. Most recently, I played Metal Gear Solid Five.

This essay's gonna be full of spoilers for it.

If you've ever taken lessons on writing books or movies, you've probably learned about themes and motifs. These repeating elements bind your work together and make it ring. Done well, they lead the audience straight into your premise and bind them to it before they've even noticed.

In video games, these are even more important. Not only are they more effective, but they are also more easily applied than other writing elements since they can be worked into any part of the game, including both cut scenes and raw gameplay.

Let's talk concrete a bit. Let's do some MGSV spoiling!

One of the motifs of MGSV is the idea of being ripped apart but having to live on. Missing limbs, missing voices, missing pasts, missing futures. This motif is so prevalent it's literally the title of the game: "The Phantom Pain" refers to the main character's missing arm and, through it, all of the other linked elements in the motif.

The motif isn't used as well as it could be. It's really only brought up right at the beginning and then again in Skull Face's final scenes. It could have been a lot stronger by linking it into the many times pain or loss is brought up. The child soldiers lost their families and that pain pushed them into a life of murder and violence... why not frame it as a lingering pain? Why not link it to Big Boss's missing arm with a simple camera pan?

These seem like small things, but they really aren't. Having good motifs and themes will make your story resonate for a lot longer. Like a trumpet, you need to have a funnel of themes for the player to breathe through, and then the note will ring out loud and clear.

I kept playing MGSV in hope that they would pull it together, but they never did. Kojima was, as usual, focused almost entirely on flash and glamour instead of the underlying power of the story. In the end, the plot was a muddled mess.

How could themes have helped? How could motifs have brought it together? What was wrong with the writing in what most people consider a gem of a game?

Well, let's consider the revenge element. This is a theme that rings pretty clear, it's brought up a lot. I don't consider it very convincing, though: there was never really any time I felt "in tune" with the main cast's lust for vengeance.

That could have been helped by some pretty subtle changes to the game itself. For example, instead of the utterly useless chicken hat that they keep trying to force onto you when you fail a mission, they could have marked your murderer and made it very hard for him, in particular, to spot you. And it could stack - if you are killed by 10 different people in this level, 10 people are now a bit blind.

This would be more universally useful than the chicken hat, but it would also push the player towards taking vengeance. Not only are they angry at the jerk that murdered them, they know that person is now weaker and open to retribution... or at least open to being snuck past.

There are a lot of other vengeance-related gameplay things you could have done - for example, causing me to actually lose any of the NPCs I cared about would have worked. But that doesn't happen until the heart of the vengeance arc is complete.

There's no doubt that the vengeance arc is the strongest arc in the game. The intention with this theme is to show that everyone's actions descend from a deep rage, a lust for vengeance. It could have been addressed clearer, but the basic idea is extremely solid.

And it has an extremely powerful ending. Themes and motifs are intense, and can be used to build up a finale that leaves a hell of an impact. If you do it right, people will remember your story for decades. It'll stay in their head.

In MGSV, the vengeance arc comes to a head with the death of Skull Face. Injured and trapped by debris, Skull Face is at the mercy of the two main characters, both of whom have lost limbs to his schemes. Instead of killing him, they blow those limbs off of him, then tell him to kill himself if he wants, and walk away.

It's a hard-to-watch scene and a dark note, but then the stupid engineer nobody likes simply goes over and shoots him. Then goes "yay! I got vengeance!"

This would have been the perfect ending, if it had been paced a little better. Two people obsessed with their deep, decade-long fury set up their brutal plan for vengeance... and then some little shit with a small, recent grudge ruins it to take vengeance himself.

That could have been perfect, turning the whole concept of vengeance into a sour note, a farce. It would have been subtle, understated, and heavy. Like a trumpet, one of the best ways to use a theme in the end is to have it ring hollow.

But that's not what MGSV does. It doesn't pace it right, it doesn't hit it cleanly, and then it immediately sweeps away to a long set of interminable speeches that have almost nothing to do with vengeance. Even if they were about vengeance, they're filling a gap - a hollow, ringing space that needs to remain empty. The trumpet turns into a whimper when you fill the bell with glitter.

You can argue that the "real ending" of MGSV is better and not flubbed, but just as an example, this is how you would have turned the vengeance theme into a powerful ending.

The difficulty is that you really have to trust that empty space. The themes and motifs don't need your help, they need space. The player has to have time to digest it and let it grow. But once it does, it will stay with them forever.

Bioshock Infinite is another example of a badly flubbed ending, but in BI's case it was all done subconsciously. Say what I like about Kojima's lack of depth, he at least uses his themes consciously. Levine does not.

As I was playing BI and getting steadily more annoyed, I started to suspect the themes were used consciously, and the touch was just incredibly subtle. Of course, that wasn't the case, and BI's plot ended up being trash.

What themes?

It's clear that BI was written by dads, and the trashy plot progression seemed to be leading to one hell of a powerful ending: DeWitt had to learn to let his daughter go, let her be her own person, maybe even kill himself to save her from his own endless meddling.

All of the game's muddy and backtracky plot elements - all the racism, all the sexism, all the old friends you have to kill, the other me, the past me, the future me, the alternate daughters that have all suffered at my hands - all of that would suddenly shine and shout if it turns out that the problem is just me. It's all... me fucking it up. Me judging it by my own biases. Me acting to protect and control, only to end up poisoning everything because my grip is too damn tight.

I know some people liked the faux-philosophical ending of BI, and I won't say you're a bad person for it, but it doesn't hook into the themes and motifs set up during the play. And the reason is because Levine didn't realize he was including themes of being an oppressive daddy figure. He just... is one. It bled in naturally, mixed with the natural juices of murderous first-person gameplay, and turned into a truly noxious mix.

It doesn't cost anything to get an ending right. It's actually cheaper, because you don't need another fifteen minutes of pomp and glitter. Just a slow pan across a scene you already built.

But it takes an enormous amount of trust in yourself, in your writing, in your editing. It takes a lot of convincing to tell yourself "the game should just... end here. I don't need to make a long speech. I don't need to set up the next game. I don't need to do anything. I can just... hold here for ten seconds and roll credits."

There are plenty of movies and books that do just that. For example, Fight Club. Fight club's ending is probably still in your head. You probably remember it even now, the self-inflicted gunshot, the burning city.

But in games it's super rare. Games are too nervous to let things sit, to let things ring on their own. Devs want to fill that space, and in the end it just muddies things up and leaves the endings tasting of sawdust.

What's the last game ENDING you remember?

I bet you remember a lot of middles! But the endings?


Anyway, this essay was just written immediately before bed, no editing. I hope you enjoyed it anyway, let me know what you think.

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