They Just Don’t Tell ‘Em Right Anymore.
I uninstalled Bioshock 2 today. I haven’t finished it, I got roughly (if the list of story-related achievements on GFWL is anything to go by) 65/70% of the way through. Why did I uninstall it? Because I was bored. Not with sticking my massive drill through another poor splicer, or with launching fire bombs and telekinetically manipulated boulders at Brute Splicers and Big Daddies, no, that was all well and fine: I was bored with the plot.
I’m as willing as the next average gamer to accept minor holes in the plot if they facilitate gameplay, but Bioshock 2’s plot was, frankly, awful. A city that was falling to pieces during the first game has somehow not only held together in almost identical condition, 10 years later, but the Splicers (and those few inhabitants who appear to retain the majority of their humanity) have willingly swung about face from Andrew Ryan’s Randian city-state to an almost anarchic, collectivist unit, bound together by Wales’ and Sophia Lamb’s “Rapture Family” – religious zealotry where none was ever even hinted at before. Not only that, but the protagonist is now “Subject Delta” – the first successfully paired Big Daddy. Of course, the existence of these prototypes was never mentioned once in the first game, and yet we’re expected to acknowledge and accept their place in Rapture’s timeline. Oh, and the first successful Little Sister just happens to be Lamb’s daughter. In short: it sucks. The writing of the first Bioshock wasn’t hugely better, but it was tolerable, and it made some small sense because the city was clearly on the very edge of collapse.
Similarly, we have the 2 Modern Warfare games. In the first, you chase down Al-Asad, after he desposes the rightful leader of some Middle-Eastern fundamentalist hell-hole (or at least that’s how it’s painted), then chase down Zakhaev and his Ultranationalists through Russia. You kill him, the nukes he launched “only” take 30,000 lives instead of tens of millions, world is safe. Except when we start Modern Warfare 2, it turns out the naughty Ultranationalists won the war and now control Russia, regardless of having their entire leadership except one man, Makarov, decimated. We then go through the improbable ability of a US Marine to successfully (or not…) infiltrate Makarov’s leadership circle, US-sanctioned acts of terrorism (IN THE NAME OF FREEDOM), and a full-blown war between Russia and America where the only nuclear casualties are a few poor mooks on the International Space Station, and some Russians who just really wanted a burger. (Incidentally, the ISS is just about the only place the player is NOT ordered to go by some other bugger throughout the game – there’s a “RAMIREZ! PERFORM ACTION X!” meme floating around 4chan and meme-generator for a reason…). And then * SPOILERS AH-oh, fuck it, everyone who’s actually interested has played it anyway, it turns out the mastermind behind the whole plot was the guy giving your Task Force 141 orders, because he didn’t like America not being able to play World Police without getting a smacked bottom any more. It was shit, and the only reason I finished it was a) I was at a friend’s house, playing his copy on his 360, and therefore losing nothing, and b) It was SHORT. 5 hours, all the way through, on Veteran.
Video game stories have always been… leaning to ludonaucy, but it’s getting ridiculous, guys. We’ve reached a point where a 5 hour long singleplayer campaign with one “shocking” (Your mileage may have varied, I certainly didn’t give a toss – IT’S NOT REAL, DAILY MAIL) scene and every single Tom Clancy wet dream crammed in is praised as “one of the best video games released all year” (Daily Telegraph), and “hands-down one of the best first-person shooters out there,”(IGN UK). When I play God of War 3, I know what I’m getting into – I’m a guy with swords on chains that have been seared onto my flesh, and I’m going to fuck the Greek Pantheon over like Sasha Grey in a porno where she was being paid by the orgasm. But a title like Modern Warfare 2 implies some vague stab at realism, to me at least – that’s what the Call of Duty games set in good old World War 2 had going for them, they were massive setpieces with improbable victories, but THEY ACTUALLY HAPPENED. Open a story up to games developers these days, and it becomes “how many TOTALLY AWESOME EXPLOSIVE CINEMATIC MOMENTS can we fit into this without having to put too much effort in?”
And then, amazingly, when we lean towards realism, game stories are denigrated for being “too depressing”! Grand Theft Auto 4 wasn’t true-to-life, but it was a hell of a lot closer than most games have come recently, and it’s tales of backstabbing, gang intrigues, loss and revenge were, for me, far easier to connect with than the plight of Ramirez, Soap, Price et al.
I’m not saying the ludicrous is bad. But at least make it contiguous within the universe you’ve created, guys. That, or invent a universe, like we used to do. Sam and Max! The Day of the Tentacle! System Shock! All their fictional tales are so much better for being in an original, well-crafted universe that their stories fit into, where they make sense – because they’ve been developed around the story. Nowadays, we take our AAA franchise, we see the world, and we shoe-horn stories into it – look at poor Sonic, or the dying embers of the once great Crash Bandicoot series. They, like Bioshock 2, are proof it doesn’t work. Bioshock 2 is what is wrong with modern video game plots. Good stories need to be in the right place, at the right time. Subject Delta was in neither.