When fiction attempts some thematic or metaphorical relevance, it's disappointing when the execution is incomplete or incompetent. If the point is not made well then the audience and critics risk reading meaning into what originally had none, or speaking about the fiction's ambition without conviction. These failures occur in every medium but I feel as though video games have a higher proportion of them. I'm talking about games that have no trouble introducing themes but never deliver the payoff. Good ideas that never coalesce into a thesis and so their inclusion comes off as scattershot; a clumsy seasoning instead of a careful foundation.
Some games are able to pull this off, no question, but I think you still see a lot of these missed opportunities. It's an easier process, I would assume, for games that rely heavily or exclusively on cutscenes or other passive media to tell the story, since the narrative rarely interacts with the game proper. Narrative concerns like subtext and metaphor probably come dead last at crunch time. If the story wraps up at all, the conclusion usually owes more to the convolutions of the plot rather than the purity of the theme. It reveals the last piece of the puzzle, reveals the last straw man hiding inside the series of Russian dolls and then has the player fight it.
Either that, or gameplay, when push comes to shove, will take precedence over narrative. The endgame administers the final exam on mechanics and subtext is a secondary priority. This segregation of gameplay and story into two different estates can cause issues of incompatibility to arise, especially when the story intends to progress to where narrative themes dictate the chain of events and the fates of the characters. It's hard to write about determinism or fatalism in an interactive medium. Hard to do stories about how different ideologies interact within a competitive micro-ecology. Hit Self-Destruct is evidently in its high school English phase, so let me use a played-out and familiar example. The boys kill Simon in Lord of the Flies because he represents one thing and the boys and the island represent another. There's simply no way for Simon to survive in that environment. It is dishonest to pretend otherwise: if Simon lives the story dies. Gamers don't expect that honesty. In the Lord of the Flies video game, players want the power to save Simon, headshot all the other boys and ride a motorcycle.
For an example of thematic disappointment, here's Deus Ex: Invisible War, which is about as far as you can get from Lord of the Flies.
The strongest point Invisible War could have made was about humanity. The game takes place in a future heavily dependent on invasive and intractable biotechnology. A faction called the Omar modify themselves beyond simple humanity. They're outfitted with hi-tech and permanent exoskeletons and form a collective consciousness. One character refuses to sleep because he knows the Omar will come and induct him surgically into their ranks.
The game also explores how far actual humans will go in the pursuit of power and advancement before betraying their conscience and each other. The conservative Templars are so single-minded in their opposition to technological enhancement that they become out-and-out killers; murdering sympathisers and collaborators in the interests of preserving human purity. Even the more level-headed of the factions will abduct and execute the main character's colleagues and friends in the hope of coercing him.
The contradiction of Invisible War is that this game, predicated on freedom of choice, is constantly leasing the player's autonomy to NPC factions. For an ostensibly free agent, the player character is always following the orders of a higher institution. This is territory better explored in Bioshock, but its presence here is no less intriguing.
The recurring theme gains prominence when the player, late in the game, meets the character J.C. Denton. Here, as an unfamiliar NPC, Denton has merged with an AI program and is coldly advocating the unwilling draft of the entire race into some kind of a social networking nightmare; linking all human minds together with his own, and he and the AI monitor their needs and administer treatment accordingly. Denton came about this theory after a 20-year isolation and apparently more of the AI remains than his own mind. He demonstrates no human characteristics, no rebelliousness, no compassion (not that he ever had much to begin with.) As Denton was the player character in the first Deus Ex, he was the most human character in the entire Deus Ex canon. Now, he no longer bears any resemblance to the player's original experiences. The transformation is sobering.
As the game escalates, the time seems absolutely right for an acknowledgment or prioritising of the question of the player character Alex's human potential. Alex has been revealed to be less than human, something of an ad hoc genetic experiment created to approximate technologically superior models. The game is perfectly poised to say or prove something about humanity at the denouement, and to make the endgame all about that. About contrasting Alex against all these other characters with their eroding or absent human credentials (one character previously thought to be real turns out to be a computer program, come on, it's not a reach) and asking whether he and the player can be the one to remember and affirm their own humanity. Deus Ex is not prone to emotional displays, which is exactly what would make the reversal so striking.
The theme is crying out to be realised, for a unifying theory that never arrives. It should be connecting the dots, should be crystallising its purpose, but at its finish, Invisible War has only the last link in its hands when it should be holding the whole chain, and then lets it slip from its fingers.
What about our future? While it might be easier to preserve thematic arcs in cutscenes, I think things are likely to improve as games move away from them. Narratives are becoming more sophisticated in delivery and closely integrated with gameplay mechanics and direct experience. That trend is going to force designers to stop thinking of story as cutscenes whose script and production can be outsourced. It will also, I hope, make them smarter in choosing the things they want to talk about.
The release of the original Deus Ex was delayed six months so Ion Storm could, amongst other things, write endings for disappearing characters. I hope that's the way we're going.