Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Riffing on the Dying Art of Videogame Plotlines

A worrying trend has started to raise its head in the videogaming industry of late, as games become less about providing entertainment for the masses, and more about making money for shareholders - the death of the videogame plot.

Take three of the latest Triple-A videogame launches, for example - Assassin's Creed 3, the Call of Duty series and Mass Effect 3 - all games which were built on well-established storylines, all games with a good pedigree and a huge fan-following... and all which buggered up their plots in the last 15 minutes.

Naturally, in a post dealing with videogame plots, here be spoilers...

I just finished Creed 3, and despite the game's plot itself - both the modern action of Desmond Miles, and that of his ancestor Connor - being well executed, and neatly fitting into both the history of the Revolutionary War and the wider Assassins vs Templars overplot of the series, the ending was an utter let down. It was a cop-out, pure and simple.

Coming to the ending, I was expecting series hero Desmond to have to make some sort of a choice, or have some sort of a dramatic payoff. What I got was a confusing video sequence which detailed his actions - he pushes a big button, saves the world from a global catastrophe (which had been built up throughout the series, and turned out to be a damp squib), and - surprise surprise - unleashes another evil upon the world at the same time.
I think its fairly clear what happened here - rather than finish the storyline in a fulfilling way, by having the Templars and Assassins work together to save the world, and perhaps forge an uneasy peace, the shareholders screamed: "No! You must mercilessly milk the series until it's so worthless that it can't make another cent!", and lo, we have a wet fart of inaction and yet another threat for the Assassins to take on. Ho-hum.

The same problem - big business dictating the developers' control over their own work - was also clear in Mass Effect 3's ending - but I've waxed lyrical about that mess - and its subsequent 'fix' - in other articles.

As for the Call of Duty series, what was once a lovingly made game which focused on the smaller battles each soldier must face as a little cog in a big war is now becoming an awful, repetitive mess which is designed for one purpose - to sell copies, and make money.
So, in my view, the death of the cohesive, well-developed videogame plot is actually a symptom of the wider decline of videogame developers' freedom.

Games which once had a plot and a purpose have become relegated to the level of wrestling and football titles - desperately re-releasing the same old gameplay and slapping a '2013' on the box like series fans won't realise what the publishers are doing.

It's disheartening - especially to gamers who have enjoyed such titles as Deus Ex, Thief, ICO, Final Fantasy 7 and the like - to discover that Triple-A titles have become little more than cash-cows beholden to investors.

But, fear not, the industry isn't completely shafted - there are rays of hope out there. First, we have 'Indie' games – titles like the excellent Braid or Journey which aren't tied to investors and shareholders with iron chains, and are free to experiment and try new things.

Then there are the start-up companies (usually stuffed with ex-Triple-A developers) which are going their own way, and finally, services like Kickstarter, which offer gamers themselves to invest in titles they want to see - and reap the rewards when the games are released. Sure, these three are but a speck of dust on a beach shaped like the Call of Duty logo, but at least we're not completely consigned to a gaming future of 'FIFA of Duty Assassin's Call of the Creed 2020'...