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Game Design

Why AAA games and stories suck

One might expect when a game has hundreds of professionals putting years and millions of dollars into it that the result would be better than something made by a small team with a small budget. So why can't they? Because they've mixed up story and gameplay.

The main thing that led me to realize this was reading Shamus Young's game reviews, especially of Mass Effect (it's one of the most fun things I've ever read):

Shamus Young's 75-part Mass Effect review

So: the problem with AAA storytelling is that they're not thinking about it from the perspective of writing a story, but a game. They don't ask "What would our characters do next?" but "What type of mission should we send the player on next?" or "We want to give the player a moral choice, someone contrive a setup for this. It doesn't need to fit the story because the story isn't the point, the player choice is."

A particularly good example is the scene Shamus criticizes in the Asari ark mission in Andromeda where you're on a spaceship and need to turn off power to a device to use it for something else. The woman there says "I tried pulling the plug, but... nothing". Do the writers not know that power can't flow through an outlet if there's nothing plugged in? Of course they do, they just didn't care because all they wanted was an excuse to make the player fend off a few waves of enemies while the NPC finds a way to power off the device. When you understand their thought process, you can see how it's possible for a reasonably intelligent person to write such nonsense.

Or the moral choices in WRPGs. They do it because they're bent on letting the player choose between good and evil, and in serving that end, they don't care if the situation makes sense or they break characters.

moral choices in WRPGs

And similarly, they're thinking about their game mechanics from the perspective of writing a story. They add mechanics purely because they fit with the flavor without considering how it impacts the experience of playing.

Example: the hollowing mechanic in Dark Souls 2, which shrinks your health bar each time you die. They must have felt the need to add this because in-universe when an undead dies they respawn at their bonfire slightly closer to hollowing (going insane). It's not that they thought this would improve the play experience, it's that they cared less about the play experience than the ludonarrative consistency.

Dark Souls review

Or the undodgeable bullets in Assassin's Creed 3. They thought that because you can't dodge a bullet in real life, the player shouldn't be able to dodge them in-game. They didn't consider how mind-bogglingly stupid that is when you're designing a game and not a cinematic, and not because they *don't know* it, but because they lost sight of which was which. They must have got a lot of negative feedback, because in the next game they added the human shield mechanic, which is totally unrealistic but clearly makes for a better game.

Assassin's Creed review

Or the QTEs in The Force Unleashed, which just restart if you fail. There's no reason to impede the player's progress with a QTE if there's no consequence for failure. The QTE sequences did play some pretty well-choreographed cinematics. But once again, if the cinematic is the only good part about a game section then just play it as a cinematic.

Final Fantasy 13: Story games gone wrong

The reason indie games don't usually have this problem is because they don't have the budget for fancy graphics, so their interfaces during combat tend to be abstractions rather than a literal depiction. That makes them less tempted to make this type of mistake.

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