November 16, 2007

Insubstantial Invective

Let's get this out of the way. This is an empty, reactionary post and hopefully it's the worst one I'll ever write. I'm sorry for that. That's why this post will be followed by another, real post faster than usual.

Assassin's Creed hasn't been doing very well lately. A while back, Eurogamer accurately observed that "[n]ot since Prince of Persia: Sands of Time has the publisher seemingly had so much riding on one particular product." So, then, that wave of "7" reviews is not good news, because in the idiotic, reductionist game review parlance of our times, a "7" means "highly disappointing."

Well, hey, reviews are reviews. Let's wait until people really play the game and then we'll see if it's IGN or GameSpot who are vindicated. And when people did play the game, the reports were pretty good. Pretty pretty good. That's when I, like many others, decided to give it a shot. After all, I'm practically made of money.

I don't know why this next part happened. Maybe because I can't have nice things. I checked out the game on IMDb. (Don't worry, this is where the obnoxiously leading narrative thankfully ends.)

Come on. They're even the first names?

I'm not going to belabour this point, but the recent Prince of Persia "trilogy" is one of my biggest gaming heartbreaks. I suppose in retrospect it was sort of predictable: replacing virtually the entire Sands of Time creative team to rush a sequel out within a year, and swapping out Jordan Mechner (effusive praise regarding Jordan Mechner is scheduled way down the line) for two "professional Hollywood screenwriters" who don't have any professional Hollywood screenwriting credits. And it was these two guys, in case I'm being too oblique. (I wish I could say that this patronising narrative is about to thankfully end, but... it's not.)

So we all know how that went.

Charming. And yet, it was three years ago, and I am over it. I am over being frustrated that these power-hacks cannot write for shit; that they are far too preoccupied with superficialities -- Prince of Persia must be an epic trilogy! What's an epic trilogy? It turns out it's amateur plot twists, ham-fisted dramatic arcs, misogyny, one-dimensional characters and the most adolescent notions of sex and violence possible.

I think I might even be okay all that if it didn't take this story so seriously. Imagine Pirates of the Carribean told with the gravitas of The Godfather and the violence of Blade II, with none of the quality, humour or modesty of any of those.

Apparently I'm not over it. Because finding out that these guys are writing Assassin's Creed? I have lost all interest in picking this up. I'm not kidding, and it's sad that this is the case. How hard can it be to ignore the writing in a video game? Especially a game this pretty.

But I can't do it. I loathe these guys' work that much. It's that invasive. I hate that with all the relatively high-profile talent Ubisoft threw at launching this new IP -- Jade Raymond! Kristen Bell! Patrice Desilets! -- they are so uninterested in the actual writing that they said "Let's hand this one over to the Warrior Within dudes, they can start a franchise."

Hey, I just noticed this startlingly attractive girl, who, okay, I can kind of tell: she's a little empty and repetitive and the PS3 version has framerate issues, but still hot. Oh, wait, she's a furry. I just can't do it.

The morning before I found all this out I read Tom Chick's post about the game, which for a professional game reviewer, had an unusually large amount of vitriol reserved for the writing. It struck me as interesting at the time but now it makes a depressingly large amount of sense.

Since this blog exists, you can tell I care a lot about writing, and since nobody reads it, you can tell no one else does. But I honestly didn't think I cared about it this much. To pass on a novel or a film because of the writer is understandable. But writing occupies such a place of irrelevancy in games, it's absurdity, even to me. I didn't expect the visceral reaction I had seeing those names. I'm so sad right now.

Sorry, Ubisoft. Sorry, Patrice. Apparently there actually was one guy that your choice of writers would really bother. I can't blame you for playing those odds.

Next: back to normal.


Michael said...

Well, Duncan, I do read your blog and I do care about game writing, and I'm damned glad you write pieces like this one and your previous one on game "romances."

Your point about the so-called irrelevance of writing in games is well taken. I'm as happy as a gamer can be right now with good ol' Mario jumping around the galaxy, and I haven't given the writing even a single thought.

But when the opportunity is there--when a game opens that door to the possibility of good storytelling, complex characters, and some kind of cultural resonance--it just feels like death to me when that game blows it. You are right to be angry about what happened to the Prince of Persia series. What a totally screwed up and blown opportunity. They had everything perfectly in place before they went Bruckheimer.

At the risk of sounding like some kind of pop culture crusader, if we don't care about writing in video games, then we don't care if the medium ever grows up. The way I see it, it will be writing that stimulates innovation in gameplay mechanics, user interface improvements, and every other technical advance to come. I realize lots of great games don't need stories, but the ones that do tend to be the most ambitious and the most in need of new ideas from top to bottom of game design.

Keep telling us what you see. It matters.

Duncan said...

Thanks, Michael. Please don't take all the self-deprecation too seriously! Defense mechanism.

Since you brought up Mario Galaxy, I felt like clarifying something: despite the focus of this blog, I'm far more satisfied with a game like SMG than, I don't know, Neverwinter Nights 2, which allegedly has some good writing underneath all the clunkiness. In no way do I consider story a necessary component of a video game. My favourite Xbox game might actually be Midtown Madness 3. Writing, though, is the only significant component of gaming that I feel I have something to say about.

I appreciate the encouragement. Thanks for reading!