July 24, 2008

Please Shut Up

The two most artistically striking Western games in the press right now suffer from the same problem. I wonder if games like Call of Duty: World at War and Alone in the Dark look at Prince of Persia and Mirror's Edge as glamorous movie stars. And if, like anyone who's ever snickered derisively at a Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson interview, they affect an intellectual superiority upon the discovery that the pretty girl is pretty vacant.

Prince of Persia and Mirror's Edge both appeared uncommonly beautiful up until the point when they opened their mouths. It's disappointing that these two games, so bold and creative on one front, have so quickly revealed the quality of their writing to be uninspired and trite. I wish they'd never said anything. I'd like to have clung to their initial promise for as long as possible. The dream is over.

The Prince of Persia is the worst thing about Prince of Persia. In this gameplay video, the Prince hops, skips and jumps his way through a lovely rendered environment, stopping occasionally to lazily opine in the boring snark of a low-rent Diablo Cody. Uncharted's Nolan North reprises his role as Nathan Drake, delivering the following lines in a detached drawl:

"Why do we always have to go TOWARDS the bad guys?"
"Don't say it's quiet! Don't EVER say it's quiet!"
"Of COURSE not! That would be far too simple!"

When Ubisoft sat in the marketing meeting that was all about the trending popularity of the brown/grey/black/brown Gears of War look, they shook their heads firmly and went with something different. But when marketing clicked over to the next slide: "Irreverence: it's what's in!" everyone leaned forward intrigued.

The lines above are flat-out not funny. They're not even trying very hard to be clever. Ubisoft are instead trying to emulate the slick, off-hand cool of a different kind of genre at the expense of their own game's aesthetic. Here, the voice actors and the dialogue are the worst fit imaginable. For the setting, obviously, but also for the style they want to recreate. "Why do we always have to go TOWARDS the bad guys?", that would be the oft-referenced Okami and ICO influence at work, then? It's a common complaint actually that the one thing ICO lacked was the spunky quips of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The debut Mirror's Edge trailer presented a game all about the visceral first-person experience, without an obstructive narrative. The soundtrack was limited to the character's breathing, her footsteps and the wind rushing by, accompanied by an oddly low-key and evocative piece of music. Trailer #2 fixed all that.

Instead of suavely unwrapping its story like a Portal might, Mirror's Edge takes a big narrative dump right on the lawn. All the mystery and wonder in the first trailer is promptly resolved, and unfortunately the answers don't seem like much fun. The game that will draw the industry's greatest praises for innovation and charm -- and, to a degree, very justifiably -- is marrying its dazzling aesthetic with writing like this:

"They've taken my sister. Framed her for a crime she did not commit. And now they're hunting me. But just because I don't have a weapon does not mean I can't fight back. So now I'm coming after whoever is behind this. On the edge of the city? You find out who you really are."

Nowhere in the world, however? Do you find out why these creative minds are so smitten with derivation. In this preview, producer Owen O'Brien describes how he fell in love with the DVD commentary for the movie Serenity and how that became the genesis of the Mirror's Edge story. Serenity writer/director Joss Whedon had this to say: "The empire isn't evil -- it just thinks it's right and can't understand why people wouldn't want to live by its rules." Mind-blowing insight for anyone whose literacy tastes run all the way from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings.

The Prince of Persia is a sassy ass-kicking hero and the heroines are smart, but not afraid to be sexy either! Everyone wants to be Joss Whedon. Everyone wants to be very serious about game design and making action games smarter and daring to be colourful and different, but at the same time, these people are the ones reorganising their Buffy DVDs and thinking "wow, that's deep, I wish I could write something that good." I wish you would try. When these games are what pass for the innovative and the risk-taking, what is the point of anyone doing anything. Instead of writing and acting, let's just paraphrase Firefly lines we remember fondly and cast Nathan Fillion in everything.

We can all do better.


qrter said...

This is one of my pet peeves in videogames, why does the writing have to be so incredibly trite and boring.

One of the last games that made me want to punch my own head into a wall, was Crysis. Here's a game that's saying "look at how photo-realistic we can make everything look" and as soon as someone opens their mouth we're back into shlocky action blockbuster territory (this is besides the gameplay, which I thought didn't deliver either).

Yippie-kay-yay, motherfucker.

Steve gaynor said...

Parkour? Generic police state? Enemies have guns but you don't? Mirror's Edge is starting to sound disturbingly like Mark Ecko's Gettin' Up: Contents Under Pressure. Make of that what you will.

Anonymous said...

Mirror's Edge is Assasin's Creed meets Ultraviolet, free-running in a dystopian world. The new Prince Of Persia is Tomb Raider via Hayao Miyazaki, platforming with a fantasy art style. Both games are drawing on very cult infulences for core concepts and art direction.

And when it comes to cult infulences for dialogue and characterisation who's more cult (Especially with the gamer demographic) than Joss Whedon?

I wonder if anybody at Dice has actually read 1984 or A Brave New World, or did they just watch Equilibrium and Ultraviolet one night? Did anybody at Ubisoft read the Arabian Nights, or did they just watch Sinbad and Aladdin?

They are using infulences that are already once removed from the classics of dystopian fiction or middle-eastern fantasy. Is it really surprising that they are so diluted?

Duncan said...

For a good time, read the Contents Under Pressure character summary on Wikipedia. Sadly I can envision Mirror's Edge ending up exactly like that.

Also, more evidence of Mirror's Edge going way off the rails here: http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=328816

Justin, when you put it like that, I suppose it's not that surprising, although it's no less depressing. It's sad to see influence work as this kind of trickle-down osmosis, where developers and writers only latch on to the most superficial aspects of what made their predecessors work. Same thing with Crysis and action games, like qrter points out, and with Gears of War wanting to be Aliens.

qrter said...

One of the Neogaf commenters makes a good point, I think:

"So they talk about having a first person action game so you're really embedded in the game world, and then they want to take you out of the world because "the story is important"? If the story is so important it should be in that very same world so you can relate with the characters and build the story around them - rather then play a game, and then watch a comic animation."

In fact, a designer saying they're presenting the story in cutscenes because said story is important is like instantly saying "GAMES CAN'T TELL A STORY lol or at least WE can't lolol".

Duncan said...

Pretty much. "Our story is so important to our game that we're going to (outsource someone who will) separate it as much as possible from the gameplay."

Duncan said...

I just want to add that I am still very excited by everything about Mirror's Edge that isn't related the story. I can't say the same about Prince of Persia at this point. After watching the gameplay video I linked in the original post, my reaction was basically "is that it?" I'm not too enthused about that one. Mirror's Edge though...!

Anonymous said...

It was this post that got me to subscribe to the blog! It came recommended to me by Google Reader:)

Alex P said...

Amazing post as always. You picked two titles that have so much potential and fumbled awkwardly to a degree at E3.

And as usual, I have two stories to go with.

This is pretty amazing and tragically hilarious.

I had a demo of Prince of Persia at E3. I thought the game was absolutely stunning visually and the gameplay looks like it will work well within the confines of the PoP universe (although I was not allowed to go hands-on with the game, so I probably shouldn't comment more on the gameplay for now).

I always speak openly with the developers when I’m being presented with a demo and I didn’t try to hold back my enthusiasm for Prince of Persia with the kind chap from Ubi Montreal, going so far as to refer to the experience as “magical” to him.

“My one complaint,” I confided in him, “and this is a big one, it’s called Prince of Persia for a reason. Why does this guy sound like a snooty teenager from Nebraska?”

The designer smiled nervously, glanced around the room, and in a hushed tone, responded “I couldn’t agree with you more.”

This was a guy who was pretty high in the organizational hierarchy, so I don’t know if your marketing bit was facetious or not, but it might be more truthful than you think. I can’t imagine any self-respecting designer would make his Prince sound like that.

If we get enough people to raise a stink over this, maybe there’s still time to re-record the voice-overs.

But probably not.

As for Mirror’s Edge, I did get to go hands on with it and was completely blown away. The controls are extremely intuitive and the fluidity of the motion is incomparable. I do think that some of the choices with regards to presentation and storytelling are already tripping the game up a bit, but still not enough to make me want to push anyone from DICE off a skyscraper.

But yeah, all that said, those two titles floored me like no others at E3. It’s a shame they both still managed to take steps backwards last month.

Duncan said...

Valentin: Cool, thanks! I hope you stick around. Hit Self-Destruct is usually updated more frequently than it has been this week. I just had to say that. To everyone. I'm so embarrassed.

Alex: I love that story. Sadly I think there's no chance of Ubisoft rerecording (or rewriting, I'd take that first.) They didn't just grab some dude fresh out of Voiceover University, they got the guy from Uncharted. It was a deliberate decision they probably have no intention of reversing. Or they are aware they would look stupid in doing so. The Diablo fans stand a better chance with their art style petitions.