Thursday, October 31, 2013

We Finally Released Avadon 2.

Keeping the single-player, turn-based, story-heavy flame alive.
After two years of development, we have finally released our first all-new game in three years. Avadon 2: The Corruption, the second game in the Avadon trilogy, for Mac and Windows, is now out on our site, Steam, and

It's another hardcore, story-heavy RPG. Cool tactical combat. In-depth story with a ton of tough choices and many different endings. (Far more than in Avadon: The Black Fortress.)

It's very much in the spirit of the older Interplay/Black Isle/Bioware games, back when Interplay and Black Isle were still going great guns and Bioware still wrote Bioware games. If you liked Avadon, you should like this one. If you didn't like Avadon, Avadon 2 is bigger, has more tough choices that make a difference, and doesn't start as slow. Maybe you'll like this one.

Don't like our business model? Allow me to phrase a retort.
I'll Take a Good Start

We've sold about 2000 copies in the first 24 hours, after pretty much zero attention in the gaming press (not that we deserve attention, I guess). Now that most indie projects are made by big teams, these numbers seem super low. For a small lean-and-mean company like ours, it's really promising.

We'll still be in business.

"But This Looks Like It Was Made In 1995!"

And that's an insult? Um, kid, haven't you heard? That's the hip style now.

Pictured: My development process.
Time Will Take Its Toll

It's been a long road. I'm in my forties and have been doing this for about 20 years, and questionable health and creeping burnout are taking their toll. I'm proud of this game, I truly am, and I think it's a lot of fun. But I can't rely on my body and brain to support my usual machine-like pace.

It'll be a while until reviews come out, but I'll spoil the surprise. 7/10, or 8/10 if the reviewer had a good day. That's how the prevailing standard of reviews go. Avadon 2 has low production values, but it's basically competently made and a lot of fun for people who like that sort of thing.

There will also be the standard cheap shots about how I should be doing different things. Even though spending my life trying to perfect my skills writing games in a beloved genre almost nobody else works in already makes me so edgy that I live out on an edge made of edges.

Anyway, there's a big demo. Hope you like it. I'm going back to bed.

Finally, I'm on twitter now. Follow me. I'm cranky and I don't want to be employable in the computer game industry, so it should end up pretty amusing.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Fun of Being Bad. The Fun of Fun.

I've been writing a lot lately about video games that are really well designed and written. Games like Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us. First-rate, intelligent titles that are only held back by the fact that, let's face it, they are gigantic bummers.

Let us never forget that video games are games. They are supposed to be fun. They are capable of, in rare, magical moments, providing genuine joy.

I wanted my last article in this little series to be about Saints Row IV, the most efficient joy-production machine I have experienced in many a year.

But I need to make the topic a little broader than that. I want to talk about the most delightful, unique, transgressive pleasure that our young art form can provide: The fun of being bad.

This was controversial once. Simpler time.
The Justifiable Fun of Being Bad

In 1976, a company called Exidy released a video game called Death Race. In it, you control a car and run over little people. You try to crush as many as you can inside of a time limit. When you hit them, they made an adorable little squeak. I played the heck out of it. Yes, I am comically old.

See, the genre of Having Fun Doing Horrible Things is almost as old as video games themselves. There have always been and always will be games that let you have fun being bad. Robbing shops. Running over pedestrians. Generally being a reprobate.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Video games are imaginary. They are places where we enact our fantasies. Sometimes, our fantasies are bad. That is why they are just fantasies.

In real life, I am snappish but basically mild and entirely non-violent person. I have played four Grand Theft Auto games front to back, and I always ended each session with a crazed kill-rampage. No apology is forthcoming.

This Is a Hard Trick To Pull Off

Making a game that makes doing evil things funny and fun is really difficult. Players don't seem to realize how tricky this is. Most people are feeling, empathic creatures. If you get the tone just a little bit off, if you make the suffering just a tiny bit real, if you let the player think for one moment about what the thing they are doing on the screen actually means, the spell is broken.

This is why, no matter how big the world of Grand Theft Auto V or Saints Row IV is, no matter how much you wander, you will never see a child running free. This is why these games, for all of the horrible crimes you can commit, will never depict a rape.

It's a delicate bit of alchemy. One of my favorite Grand Theft Auto missions ever involves repeatedly shooting a guy in a full body cast with a rocket launcher. It was just the right level of ludicrous to be hilarious.

If you can't possibly see how this could be funny, please, I beg you, never watch a Road Runner cartoon. The things that poor coyote goes through will break your heart. All he ever wanted to do was eat.

And then I turned off the Playstation and didn't turn it on again for a week.
So Don't Miss the Point

I have been a huge Grand Theft Auto fan for a long time, so the way the designers have completely lost the thread of what they're trying to do pains me greatly. The most discussed scene in the game involves the long, slow, graphic torture of a prisoner with jumper cables, pliers, a wrench, and gasoline. Here's a video of it! Enjoy! (Skip to 6:50 to really get the good stuff.)

Did you watch it? Of course you didn't. Why on earth would you?

And yet, why wouldn't you? Didn't you hear? Grand Theft Auto V has a 97 on Metacritic. That is basically perfection. It made a billion dollars in like a day. It is, critically and financially, the absolute pinnacle of the art form. Don't you like video games? Why would you not want to see the pinnacle of the art form?

But Anyway

Of course, this scene (and so much of the rest of the game) has been criticized for just general horribleness, to which people who don't get it respond, "But Grand Theft Auto is about having fun being bad."

This misses the point. If you want people to get that jolt of transgressive joy, you have to be more careful about what you make them do, not less. I don't know who, beyond adolescent boys, could ever have actual fun playing that scene. Game-design-wise, it's simply an unforced error.

Video games are maturing as an art form. The stuff you can't get away with in movies and TV? Soon, they won't be permissible in video games either. Civilization inflicts its requirements.

On the other hand...

Yeah, things get a little weird.
It's All In the Little Things
"Like all good stories, the second act begins with a call to action and the building of a robot." - Narrator, Saints Row IV.
Saints Row IV is a rare pleasure. It's a game that knows exactly what it is. It's not about internal consistency or artistic statements. It's about packing as much simple, senseless joy, lowbrow and high, into a game as they it possibly can.

(Disclaimer: It is the only Saints Row game I have ever played.)

It is a game that features:

The protagonist riding a nuclear missile, Dr. Strangelove style, ripping out components to disable it while your friends eulogize you on the radio and the theme song from Armageddon plays. It's pure, ridiculous genius.

A gun that shoots black holes. I can image how balancing Saints Row IV went. The designers sat down at a table, gave it some quiet reflection, and went, "Wait a second. Never mind. Our game has a BLACK HOLE GUN."

Also, the dubstep gun.

In a scene almost impossibly sweet for a game like this, you and one of your friends drive to a mission together while singing Opposites Attract. I've played a lot of games like this, but this is the only time I ever drove more slowly to hear all of the dialogue.

Zipping through the Matrix on Tron light cycles while the evil alien overlord Zinyak recites the Tomorrow and Tomorrow monologue from Macbeth. ("I don't listen to Scottish hip-hop.")

And if none of this makes Saints Row IV sound like a game you'd want to play, that's cool. Tastes legitimately differ. But can't you see how it's the sort of game a LOT of people would want to play? (Excellent pacing, satisfying super-powers, crisp writing, and an overwhelming sense of just-plain-fun help a lot.)

It's a big art form. There's room for drama and humor, tragedy and mystery. But if you want to go silly, and if you want to make a game in which players can pretend to be horrible crazy criminals and still be able to look at themselves in the mirror, this is how it is done.

And, as a special bonus for old people like me who have developed actual human empathy, almost all of the game takes place in the Matrix, so I don't have to feel guilty about running people over in the street.

But You're Not Really Doing It, So Why Does It Matter?

Another point I see made a lot, which I find overly simple and not really thought out.

Yes, on one level, your conscious brain knows it's just an illusion. You "know" it's fake. In one part of your brain. Only one.

You're still controlling it. You're still seeing it. It still makes you feel. I mean, fiction can have incredibly powerful effects on people, and we all know it's not real. Controlling it yourself only increases this effect.

This is why so many people, myself included, could not possible bring themselves to shoot the giraffes in The Last of Us, as desperately tempting as it was. This is why fiction works at all. Yes, part of our brain knows it's not real. That part is the minority.

It's Too Easy? I Don't Even Know What That Means.

The main criticism I've seen leveled against Saints Row IV is that it gets too easy. This is half right. As you develop your incredible arsenal of magic Matrix powers, you become a god pretty quick. However, I really don't like criticizing a game for this.

Difficulty is only one of many things a designer has to set, and there is no right answer. Some games, like Super Meat Boy and Demon's Souls, are selling extreme challenge. Others, like most casual games, are selling a friendlier, more casual experience. There is no right answer! I hate it when reviewers pretend there is one.

Saints Row IV is a crazy, silly game that feeds power fantasies and lets you throw enemy hordes around with awesome brain power. Making it a difficult game would just be wrong for the tone. (And, if you want it to be tough, play it on the hardest difficulty level. There. Was that so hard?)

You want to fail a lot? Fine. Go play Grand Theft Auto V and die ten times trying to land the plane. We'll see who has more fun.

Oh, and one other thing. Trust me. Gamers are far more likely to forgive a game for being too easy than too hard. Most people have only a limited appetite for being told how dumb they are.

The Pleasure of Video Games is the Pleasure of Doing

And sometimes, the things you want to do are bad. Again, nobody is going to apologize for this, nor should they need to. Yes, it feels real, but no, it's not real.

It's one of the hardest things to do right. Some people are better at it than others. Now, if you will excuse me, the new Saints Row IV DLC is out. It's called "Enter The Dominatrix". That is the sum total of all I know about it. Sold. Crass fun is still fun.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Every Action is a Choice, Every Choice Makes a Difference.

I hope that this GIF of a panda sneezing livens up an otherwise dry discussion of game design stuff.
Last week, I wrote about The Last of Us, a linear, stealth-based zombie shooter that provides one of the most moving, emotional experiences I've ever seen in a video game. It's pretty terrific. It even has giraffes.

Now I want to talk about art, video games, and how emotional effect is generated in an artsy, boring way.

But Back To the Question

It's a great story, but why did The Last of Us need to be a game? Why not a movie? I mean, this thing could have been an insanely cool A&E miniseries.

(Note, for this discussion. I’m focusing on first/third person real-time games. Turn-based more tactical games, like the ones I write, have their own powerful, distinct appeal.)

This perplexed me for a while, because I've long felt that one of the great powers of video games as art is the ability to give the player choices. Last of Us doesn't have any choices of import. My insistence on choices (which, in the end, are usually of a simple Choose Your Own Adventure level of depth) is kind of a dead end for figuring out why Last Of Us is best as a video game.

Except for one key thing:

Every time you touch the controller, you are making choices.

It IS a Movie, and You Are Directing It.

The first thing you learn about making movies is that there are many factors that affect its emotional effect on the viewer:

Pacing - How fast or slow the movie moves.

Editing - What you look at, from what angle, for how long.

Composition - The arrangement of visual elements on the screen.

Framing - Techniques used to focus your attention on one element or another.

These elements dramatically affect your perception of a scene, and thus its emotional effect on you. When you are playing the game (outside of the cutscenes), YOU determine all of them.

In addition, in almost any shooter, there are many ways to approach it. Do you charge in shooting? Or do you approach slowly and snipe? Do you rely on the crafting system if there is one (in Last of Us all your best weapons are crafted), or are you a Gun Guy?

These choices, combined with the way you move your view and the speed you move around, reflect the way your brain perceives things, your chosen way to interact with this fantasy world. They in turn change the qualities of what you are perceiving, changing the way they affect you emotionally. Which, in turn, affects how you play, which affects how you perceive the game, and so on.

This feedback loop, as you make your own movie based on your own perceptions and personality, occurs in every shooter, no matter how linear. Every twitch of the controller is a choice, and those choices change how the game effects you. Everyone who plays Last of Us gets an experience tailor-made to themselves by themselves.

For Example

I went through Last Of Us in a very slow, methodical, exploratory, stealth-based way. My Joel was a cautious guy. He liked to make things and set traps. He hated the slightest risk. He was ever eager to run away. This is character development!

My Ellie really liked stabbing guys in the neck.

Your Joel experienced the exact same story as mine, but he went through it in a different (perhaps very very different) way.

But Anyway

I don't have too much more to say about it than that. I think it's an interesting idea. Storytelling is important. Choices are important. However, the many tiny, elemental choices we make when playing a video game, especially one with as complex a presentation as Last of Us, have a huge effect on the experience. An effect that is unique to video games, which is really cool.

I hope soon to write about Saints Row IV, which is basically a Grand Theft Auto V that doesn't make me want to take 50 Xanax.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Cheap Shot Review Of Gravity

My wife and I really, really did enjoy watching Gravity, but several days of non-stop ranting has caused my wife to ban me from talking about it anymore, so I turn to you. After all, the internet is a loving, non-judgmental safe space.

First off, I've read articles seriously saying that Gravity would ignite new interest in space travel. No. That's like saying Jaws would make everyone want a pet shark. Gravity is the last shovel of dirt on the grave of space travel. It's the science fiction equivalent of your parents telling you that, yes, in fact, they really did get divorced because of you.

This will never, ever be you.
But the part that I'm fixated on is how, at some point, they remembered that they needed to give Sandra Bullock's character an actual character, so they saddled her with a dead, young, tragically dead daughter.

(Just a thought. Wouldn't it have been so much better to give her a live daughter, and she couldn't talk to her because of the loss of communications? It would have given Sandra's adventure real stakes. Even better, it would have given her moving conversation with the Chinese ham radio guys an actual point. She could have tried to break the language barrier to tell them to record what she is saying ("Record? Tape?" "Tape!" "Yes! Tape!") so she could send a last message to her child. Again, just a thought. Though I am right.)

But then, when they needed to decide how Bullock's daughter died, and this is the point where I had to ask three people just to make sure I didn't hallucinate it, it turns out that the kid died when she fell down playing tag.

Yes, I'm not kidding. When she said that, I lost a full minute of space suspense thinking, "No, I couldn't have heard that right." I mean, sure, it is technically possible. (Not really. I mean, I've been a parent quite a while now, and it's not like the dead kids are stacked up like cordwood by the side of playgrounds from tag and monkeyshines-related fatalities.) But the point isn't possibility, it's choosing something that doesn't take people out of the moment. Kids get eaten by lions all the time, but if Bullock said that's what happened to her daughter, isn't there at least a chance you would have said, "Say what now?"

And then his spine snapped like the stem of a Waterford crystal wine glass.
So the conversation actually went something like this.

Sandra Bullock: "My daughter died playing tag. Fell down and hit her head. Just one of those things that happens."
George Clooney: "[Laconic Chuck Yaeger imitation.]"
Random Non-White Guy: "Guys, look! A wrench traveling at 20000 miles an hour!" [DIES]

Actually, I would have written something like this:

Sandra Bullock: "My daughter died playing tag. Fell down and hit her head. Just one of those things that happens."
George Clooney: "No. No, it isn't."
Random Non-White Guy: "Wrench!" [DIES]

But my dream version would be something like this:

Sandra Bullock: "My daughter died playing tag. Fell down and hit her head. Just one of those things that happens."
George Clooney: "What? She died playing tag? Who taught kids in Illinois how to play tag? You do know that, when tagging someone, a light-to-medium-firm touch of the fingers is all that is required. You don't use a bat. You don't need to give the other kid a donkey punch in the back of the freakin' head."
Random Non-White Guy: "Wait. What did she say?"
George Clooney: "She says her daughter died playing tag."
Random Non-White Guy: "Seriously!? Where was she playing tag? The Thunderdome!?" [DIES]

Or maybe just:

George Clooney: "So, Ryan, who's waiting for you back home?"
Sandra Bullock: "Um, can this wait until Space isn't trying to kill us?"
Random Non-White Guy: [DIES]

Please, please let me know if I start to overthink this.

Friday, October 11, 2013

State Of Art In Vidya Games. Exhibit 2. The Last of Us.

It's not easy to explain why a game is really neat to people who'll probably never play it,  but I'll take a crack at it.
I wanted to write about The Last of Us. It's an instant classic, and an amazing testimonial to how excellent writing and voice acting can turn an already very solid video game into something truly moving and extraordinary.

However, I think it maps an excellent path to answering the tricky question about what makes video games a unique art form:

In a game that is purely linear and tells most of its story through cutscenes, why not just tell the story as a movie? What unique element makes video games a distinctive art form?

I'll write more about this bit next week, because I think there are some very interesting things to say. Today, because most of the people reading this won't ever play it (Playstation 3 exclusive) I wanted to describe its story and some of the interesting things about it, accompanied by YouTube videos so you can see what I'm going on about.

More of a game design geek sort of post today.

So About The Last Of Us

The Last of Us is a first person shooter with a heavy stealth element set in the zombie apocalypse. Yeah, like 500 other games. It tells the story of a bitter, violent, barely sane, middle-aged survivor named Joel and the teenaged girl who ends up in his care named Ellie.

(Standard Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers. So what? We're trying to have Real Talk about art here, which means looking at the whole thing. So put on your grown-up pants, come along, and don't freak out.)

Quick plot summary. In the prologue, the zombie apocalypse breaks out. Joel tries to get out of town with his daughter. Some idiot soldier, just following orders, kills Joel's daughter. Joel pretty much loses him mind.

(The prologue is pretty fantastic. One thing I need to point out about it: It's not some easy-peasy spoon-fed tutorial nonsense. If you don't take the zombies seriously and run and run FAST, they will kill you. Last of Us is a game that demands you take it seriously from the get-go. Don't mess around during the apocalypse.)

Skip a couple decades forward. Joel is now sort of a thuggish criminal smuggler in a hellish future city full of mushroom zombies, completely closed off and cynical. He goes with his partner Tess to get a job.

(Tess is another sharply drawn, bitter female character, who’s competent, angry, not a love interest, and totally not there just for eye candy. It is taking the game industry a while to realize that the percentage of female gamers is edging real close to 50%, but Naughty Dog gets it.)

Joel meets Ellie. Joel learns Ellie is, for some unknown reason, immune to the zombie fungus, and Joel needs to escort Ellie to future scientists who can use her to figure out how to cure zombieism.

(Now, at this point, you can probably make a pretty accurate guess how this is all going to end. I anticipated it instantly. This is NOT a flaw in the game. Human behavior is usually extremely predictable. This makes it no less interesting. Sometimes good storytelling means having the courage to make the ending go where it needs to go.)

Joel crosses country with Ellie. At first, he can't bring himself to like Ellie. Little by little, both people learn to open themselves up to caring for another human again.

(Side note. Ellie is a fourteen year old girl. The way the game industry is right now, many were terrified that the game would sexualize her and make the whole thing insanely creepy. Instead, they simultaneously avoided any creepiness at all and made Ellie a completely believable teenager. I bet a lot of thought went into it.)

Then, in my favorite section of the game, Joel is heavily wounded, and you switch protagonists. Ellie has to hunt for food and then protect him from bandits. You play as Ellie for a huge chunk of the game, and she gets an excellent and suspenseful boss fight all to herself.

(This whole section completely caught me by surprise and blew me away. Ellie plays close enough to Joel that your skills still matter, but differently enough that you have to adapt. Obviously, a teenage girl is going to have to rely much more on stealth and trickery. Also, the first part of this section is simply Ellie stalking a deer through the snow and hunting it with a bow. It's quiet and lovely.)

But if you can't shoot it, why is it even there?
In one city, in one of many exploration sections that are free of violence ...

(Last of Us understands pacing, and that quiet sections make the fast, scary sections more effective. Smart designers know that sometimes simple, quiet exploration is a lot of fun.)

... you see a tower of giraffes, descendants of specimens that escaped from a zoo.

(Yes, a group of giraffes is called a "tower." This is a great scene. Apart from being really very pretty, the game takes the time to let you know that, if humanity dies out, it's not the end of everything. There is still a world that will carry on just fine without us.)

Finally, Joel delivers Ellie to the scientists. Surprise! They might be able to save humanity, but they will need to kill Ellie to properly analyze her. Joel goes on a rampage, saving the unconscious Ellie, and carrying her away.

(Some people still think that Grand Theft Auto is in some way shocking, instead of just dour, obvious, and tired. These people need to play the last section of Last of Us to see how a horror game can really bring the horror. No zombies required.)

Now, note. It's a linear game. Almost no choices to be made. A lot of players were really angry about being forced to control Joel as he, potentially, damns the human race to destruction. And yet, there is no way that character could do anything but what he did. He had a faceless bureaucrat kill his daughter once, and it basically destroyed him. There is no way he could ever endure it again.

Games For Grown-Ups Should Be Their Own Genre ...

... with their own section in the store.

Everything about Last of Us is for grown-ups. The real characters, acting in believably human ways. The lack of pandering and gratuitous sex eye candy. The occasional difficult sections, showing an awareness that to give a feeling of accomplishment requires a chance of failure. The game length, which is a smidge long but still doable for someone with a busy, adult schedule.

It's easy, sometimes, to look at video games and despair. It's this sort of rare AAA game, that aims for a target above the most simple and base, that gives me hope.

There's some shotgun ammo hidden inside the podium.
It's Not the Citizen Kane of Video Games

And stop looking for one. That anyone thinks we need a Citizen Kane of video games shows a lack of understanding of why Citizen Kane is as revered as it is. Citizen Kane was unusual in having a huge density of innovation in film-making techniques for one film, but there is no reason to expect that one game needs to come along and remake everything. It's just as likely that video games will advance in an incremental way, with lots of new techniques spread out over a bunch of games.

Really good movie, though.

Also, The Last of Us is not, for the most part, an innovative title. (The switch to playing Ellie is ingenious, and I hope more games play with the POV character like that.) This game mainly does stuff many games have done before. It just does it perfectly.

And There's No Choices

It's a purely linear story. It's their story, and you're experiencing it.

Why did this need to be a game? Why not a movie? I mean, this thing could be an insanely cool A&E miniseries, like Walking Dead but with actual characters and interesting events.

But, even in the most linear shooter, video games bring their own unique features to the art table. Still working that one out, but I should have a post on it ready next week.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Never Write a Wacky Surprise Ending Again.

I am Jack's incredibly tired writing trick.
One of the sad things about the video game industry is that it has very little institutional memory. People go into it young, get burned out on infinite crunch hours for minimal pay, realize they want to raise a family/live their lives, leave, and never go back.

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.
So, in the absence of a lot of writing experience, young writers tend to grab what they know. What's cool and shiny. What did they grow up watching? The wild, unexpected twist ending. The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Saw, every Shyamalan movie and every other film that, while they might have been good, should perhaps not be taken as a template for all storytelling forever.

(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.)

Pictured: Art.
A Caveat

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.
A Real Life Example

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.

Holy crap!

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.
But Jeff, I've Played Your Games. Your Stories Suck!

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.