|I am Jack's incredibly tired writing trick.|
As a result, you don't get enough skilled crafters who put in the decades it takes to get really good at it. (Not to mention the obvious effects of having an entire art form almost exclusively written and designed by young people, still mostly men.) This is especially clear when it comes to the storytelling.
Good storytelling requires a very fine understanding of humanity. How it acts. How it develops. How people react to success and failure. And, sorry, this sort of fine awareness is only helped by living, experiencing things, and thoroughly absorbing what others have learned and experienced.
(ProTip: If you want to write game stories or anything else, you should be a voracious reader and watcher of things. Cast a broad net. If you take any sort of visual storytelling seriously and haven't seen, say, The Godfather, or Casablanca, or just about anything by Orson Welles, you're doing it wrong. Money on the street, and you're just walking by.)
|The surprise ending, it turns out, is that Bruce Willis is actually an Uruk-hai.|
(And yes, a lot of these movies are good. One of my favorite films is The Crying Game, and everyone got so overheated about its crazy twist that they often failed to notice it's a fantastic film about how complex and unpredictable love can be.)
Surprise wacky twists were good for a while. Now they're in half the games I play, and we need to take a break. They are the enemy of good storytelling.
Yeah, You Read That Right.
Good storytelling is, in the end, about humanity. About the choices they make, the results they have, and how those results affect us.
You know something? Those results are almost never surprising. That's the point. It's part of being human: The things we bring upon ourselves, good or bad, are often entirely predictable. You saw them coming a mile away (or you were deliberately not paying attention).
The patterns in the lives of others are frequently obvious, but the patterns in our own lives are often almost impossible to see. We can only recognize them when they are shown to us, so we can go: Oh. Yeah. That's me. Or that's not me, and I know why.
That is how great storytelling works. THAT IS WHY WE HAVE ART.
(Which is why it's so horribly depressing that our schools have been systematically purged of arts education in lieu of eternal test prep. A cynical person might think that we're removing anything that creates fully rounded humans and citizens of a Republic so that we can instead mass-manufacturer mindless work drones ranked and measured according to meaningless test scores. Happily, nobody has ever accused me of being cynical.)
I am not trying to eliminate all surprises in drama. You can have big reveals. What I am specifically calling out are wacky twists, defined as those that require withholding key information from the viewer, out and out lying to the viewer, or using other storytelling tricks to obscure a key fact that would otherwise be instantly obvious.
Why Surprise Twist Endings Are Stupid
Here are some reasons.
1. They lie to the reader/viewer, or they withdraw key information. When you're telling a story and trying to make an emotional connection, you're doing something difficult. Don't waste your time. Focus on creating your characters. That's a tough enough job! Say the most relevant, interesting things about them. If you do your job right and make them compelling, you don’t need secrets in the first place.
2. They degrade the viewer's trust in future works of art. When I played Spec Ops: The Line, I was constantly distracted from immersion in the story by the suspicion that I was being lied to and some crazy twist was coming at the end. Of course, it was.
3. You're risking all for an uncertain payoff. The movie The Sixth Sense worked because the insane twist at the end was pretty cool. It's also a very fragile thing. If your ending isn't really that clever, or if someone spoils it, your movie better be able to stand on its own. Which is usually can't. And if your movie could stand on its own, why did you need the twist in the first place?
4. There's just a better way. There is nothing in the world, not spaceships blowing up, not a guy turning into a big green guy, nothing more interesting than human beings, the dumb ways they act, and why. Real stories, stories that LAST, are always about this. (And if you aren't trying to do this, why aren't you? Life is short.) If your wacky twist doesn't make your story be more about real people, you're just wanking. Throw it away.
And, finally, one key point specific to video games.
5. Most people don't finish video games, even short ones. If you put the crazy detail that makes your story make sense at the end of your game? Then, for most people who play your game, the story will never make sense at all! It's a big waste.
|You may want to find out how the game ends before you get too comfortable ogling those.|
I enjoyed Bioshock: Infinite a fair amount, but I really didn't get into it the way most people seemed to. It seemed to feel obligated to have the trademark, crazy "Bioshock twist," which resulted in a story with far less punch than it could have had.
(Spoilers ahead for Bioshock: Infinite, of course. Stay calm.)
So here's the story. You play this guy named Booker who is hired to rescue a woman named Elizabeth from this floating racist city in the sky. When you find her, she's missing the tip of one of her fingers. As you run around and shoot racists, you explore the mystery of where she came from and why you are there.
You learn, at the end, that Booker is Elizabeth's father. He sold her to pay off a gambling debt, and, when he tried to get her back, the tip of her finger was cut off.
What a fantastic set-up for a story. A tormented father, guilty of a horrible crime, given a chance to redeem himself. A confused young woman who learns who her rescuer is and has to come to terms with what he did to her and the violent creature he has become. (Because it's a video game, so he's still spending a lot of time decapitating racists with his robot hand.) There's potential for a lot of cool, meaty drama and dialogue here.
Of course, none of that happens. Because Booker's relationship with his daughter (and that she is his daughter) has to stay secret until the very end of the game, for no reason.
It means that the whole, long game is spent with none of the characters ever talking about what they should be talking about. Elizabeth constantly goes on about her Disney princess "Oh, I wonder what life is like on the land?" issues, and expressing ambivalence about Booker's psychotic violence that doesn't come to anything, and constantly bugging you about the five dollars she found, instead of getting into any of the cool stuff that the story should have been about in the first place.
(If you want to see the superior drama that comes from letting a violent old guy and his young female ward talk about what they should be talking about, I plan to write about The Last of Us soon.)
And, again, a huge number of people don't finish games, unless they read the Wikipedia page. On Steam, as of this writing, only 58.2% of people who got the game achieved the Tin Soldier achievement, which means finishing the game at all. That's actually a really big percentage.
It still means over 40% of the people who bought Bioshock: Infinite on Steam never learned one thing about Booker and Elizabeth and the finger and what was going on. I honestly feel that if all the crazy bananas stuff was openly presented in the beginning, it would make people more engaged in what was going on then just another generic Mystery Box.
Like I said, fun game. I did enjoy it, and there were a lot of good things about that story. And yet, I am allowed to be bothered by wasted potential.
|That's right. I said something critical about Bioshock: Infinite. Now's your chance to jump ahead to the Comments and fix me.|
That's right, kid. Get it out of your system. Nothing easier than a big, categorical cheap shot. Still the Internet, after all.
The writing in my early games was, frankly, lousy. It's a side effect of having to spend the 10000 hours it takes to gain proficiency in public.
I have tried, over the last two decades, to write games with good stories. My resources are limited, and I have to write a game at the same time as the plot and dialogue. This is not to excuse my many failures, but to explain them.
I do believe I've written some cool stories, and I think they're getting better. I have some story ideas for a new game series, which I might be able to write someday, that I think are fantastic.
But if you think my stories suck, hey, cool man. Some people like them. De gustibus non est disputandum.
It's Just a Fad
I'm not really worried about it. Wacky twist storytelling is a cul de sac. There's really only so much you can do with it, compared with the infinite potential variety of simple stories about actual people doing actual things. As video games evolve as an art form, there will be a lot of dead ends.
And look at the bright side, if a writer is taking the time and effort to construct a twist, it at least means they care. They're trying! That is such a step up from game storytelling in the past.
The fact that this conversation could happen at all means we've come a long, long way.