All The Wrong Lessons Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2016-04-28 14:00:00 No comments

Why is video game lore so awful? •

... video game creators are prone to making two erroneous assumptions about what constitutes a deep narrative. The first is that volume equals depth. In the classic tradition of epic science fiction and fantasy literature, studios will craft thousands of pages of backstory, often involving many hundreds of characters and vast intergalactic wars. Sometimes it seems as though, early in a narrative meeting, one writer will say to another, "okay, let's set this in the middle of a war that has been running for a 100 years"; then their colleague replies, "No wait, how about... a thousand years?" And then everyone agrees this is exponentially deeper. It isn't, it's just an extra nought on the end of a conflict that, without context, pathos or human tragedy, is ultimately meaningless.

Emphasis mine. Sound familiar? Wait, there's more.

The other problem is the belief that obfuscation equals depth. In the Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid franchises for example, the timelines, relationships and plot structures are so tortuously complex, so shielded within arcane terminology, that it's almost impossible to engage on an emotional, empathic level. Yes, Kojima makes lots of super smart postmodern jokes and references throughout his games, but they are buried beneath narrative labyrinths that feel inaccessible, not because they're intellectually complex, but because they don't make a whole lot of sense. This doesn't feel like great story-telling.

My friend (and video game journalist) Eric Frederiksen talked about this the other night, and noted how in gaming these kinds of mistakes manifest somewhat differently than they do in other entertainments. But a lot of the net effects are the same: they make for bad examples to follow, even if they're successful commercially.

The first issue -- volume ≠ depth -- is one of the theories I've entertained about why something like Game of Thrones gets the attention it does. People assume the page and volume count mean something important is going on there, and it's easy to get lost in the knotty convolutions of something and feel like it is indeed important. Or at least absorbing.

To that end, the folks who follow GoT because it's a giant soap opera have the more right idea than the folks who think it actually has something valid to say about human nature or war or power politics.

The thing I notice most about the big-ending approach, so to speak, is that it easily impresses people who aren't themselves creators. If you write a thousand-page book, that's hugely impressive to someone who can barely compose a tweet -- even if those thousand pages are mostly antiplot meandering. That someone was able to create something like that at all lands with a whomp. In the wake of such a wow, it's easy to credit the work with significance it might never have earned.

Profundity isn't something that you accumulate by adding and extending. In the words of Tibor Fischer when talking about Martin Amis, profundity is like being funny -- you either have it or you don't, and straining for it doesn't help. A long work that is profound is not made twice as profound by being made twice as long; it's just longer, with the newly added danger of becoming redundant. But if people eye this stuff and think this is what I have to do to be taken seriously, then it's no wonder people think the way to be taken seriously as an author of popular entertainment is to write big, complex (convoluted, aimless, bloated) stories.

Item #2 was assailed, quite wonderfully, by none other than Film Crit Hulk in his essay about why modern blockbuster entertainment has become so self-importantly convoluted. A straightforward story is an effective one, but it's easy to forget that and be seduced by the superficial allure of complexity. Such stories are triumphs not of storytelling or emotion, but engineering. (I said something like this once about The Avengers -- that it was a triumph of project management more than anything else -- and it's beginning to look like that criticism can be directed at the whole of the over-valued MarvelDCVerse.)

The reason I pound on these things as often as I do is not just because they mean the quality of the entertainment we're exposed to is that much lower. It also means they're serving as bad examples for current and future generations of would-be creators. These are the largest and most visible examples to them of what success means in popular culture. Don't be surprised if they emulate them, and learn all the wrong lessons from them.

Tags: culture storytelling video games writing