[I’m discussing the narratives of video games here, in particular their third acts and conclusions: obviously this involves the dreaded “spoilers”. Read this for my full exegesis on the narcissistic stupidity of people who are obsessed with not being “spoiled”; but for now it suffices to say that you’ll want to jog on if knowing how a story ends is likely to make you scream, clutch your pearls and faint.]
At this stage I don’t think anybody expects Japanese games to make sense, not even the flagship franchises that are generally recognised as being well made and enjoyable to play. Ever since its first iteration in the Nineties, Resident Evil (Bioshock in its native Japan) has been notorious for terrible dialogue and plot holes big enough to have yet another top secret biological weapons laboratory hidden inside them. The fact that Resident Evil‘s American Milla Jovovich-vehicular film franchise has worse dialogue, less convincing characters and less coherent plots than a video game series which has always been infamous for such things is an indictment of Hollywood’s cynical creative bankruptcy, but that’s another essay in its own right.
Moving on, the plot and character motivations behind the Silent Hill series started out incomprehensible; subsequent sequels and retcons made matters worse, not better. I don’t know why the Metal Gear Solid franchise seems to get much less flak than Resident Evil, despite it being demonstrably the worst offender for its laughable scripts, unmotivated and bizarre actions by utterly unconvincing characters, woeful performances, and random plot twists that come out of nowhere and go there too, not to mention the rambling and interminable monologue or dialogue scenes it inflicts upon the player at the least appropriate moments. The narrative problems of these Japanese games are fundamental and don’t just arise from translation or cross-cultural issues, although those exist too.
So in short, let’s just say that Japanese games are not quite ready to be considered in the context of other artistic genres.
Recent natively Anglophone games, on the other hand, are becoming adult enough and close enough to being an actual art form that I think it’s fair to start expecting their makers to learn how to do it properly. Specifically, I’m talking about the widespread failure of the games industry when it comes to endings. Even more specifically, I’m talking about the third act that’s crucial to every narrative genre: the part that’s more or less the point of the whole story, the denouement where all the threads are tied up and everything is explained or at the very least resolved in some way that doesn’t make the audience feel as if they’ve been cheated, insulted or had their time (and money) wasted. The writers, storyliners and directors of video games just can’t get this part right.
It should be noted that Japanese games are generally as bad or worse with regard to concluding their narratives successfully, but this is simply a continuation of their uniformly bad storytelling. The Silent Hill games are somewhat known for having multiple endings that are influenced by what the player does (or fails to do) in gameplay. Unfortunately none of these endings ever make any kind of sense whatsoever and they do little or nothing to wrap up what went before, so there’s hardly any point in placing them in the context of conventional storytelling. Even critically acclaimed and thoughtful Japanese games like Shadow of the Colossus or Okami end abruptly with deflating, non sequitur “conclusions” that are actually nothing of the sort.
By contrast, Western games generally do very well with their storytelling until the home stretch, which makes their failed endings all the more striking and frustrating.
My thoughts on this matter were occasioned by recently completing the main storyline of L.A. Noire, which is the third game I’ve played in a row from game developers Rockstar that had a confused, disappointing and needlessly demoralising conclusion. Every one of them gave the impression of being a cheap and unnecessary “fuck you” to anybody who had spent many hours actively working towards that ending. So perhaps to some degree I’m taking issue with Rockstar’s particular brand of storytelling failure, although I have a few other games and franchises in mind that I’ll mention eventually.
Obviously I’m not the first person to say that there’s a lot to love in Rockstar’s open world games. L.A. Noire, Red Dead Redemption and recent entries in the Grand Theft Auto franchise all feature vistas and imagery that I have no hesitation in describing as beautiful, and each is beautiful in its own way. Red Dead Redemption is a hyperreal evocation of the Wild West as filtered through the Hollywood Western. The game’s truly majestic vistas are a wonderfully judged evocation of human smallness and insignificance within them and they sometimes take your breath away in the same manner as would a real world landscape of outstanding beauty, or a painting of one.
The caricature of New York City in Grand Theft Auto 4 is both bitingly satirical down to its tiniest detail and a love/hate homage to the things that make great cities great. Again, the sheer labour and craftsmanship involved in creating even a vaguely accurate or recognisable simulacrum of a real city is mind boggling; to make it a place that is a fraction as rewarding to explore and spend time in as a real city is an amazing achievement.
This goes double for L.A. Noire, whose evocation of Los Angeles in the 1940s seems in some ways more grown-up and immersive because it’s much less interactive; who, in real life, goes around opening random doors or jumping off a three storey building with the expectation that they won’t be badly hurt? Although the protagonist is a detective, L.A. Noire even sensibly prevents you from drawing or firing your police-issue gun unless the narrative requires it. The weaving in of some semblance of a social contract is an interesting development also found in Red Dead Redemption; in the latter you are free to shoot or rob anyone, but a reputation/morality system means that there are always social and gameplay consequences for it. If you have bad reputation, people will justifiably say bad things about you and flee, or prepare to defend themselves at the sight of you. In RDR specifically, this morality system’s morally fair and technically transparent functioning throughout most of the game leads specifically and directly to the game’s failed denouement. I’ll return to this later.
The dialogue and voice acting in contemporary adult games are generally excellent. The writing of Grand Theft Auto 4 accurately nails its targets and is often laugh out loud funny, right down to the in-game version of the internet. Red Dead Redemption‘s characters and dialogue run the gamut from convincingly grim pioneer types scratching a living in the dust to Blazing Saddles parodies, but all of them are sewn up into a coherent world. L.A. Noire‘s performance capturing technology and the performances of the actors themselves are riveting. The (not by Rockstar) Uncharted series has great voice work, snappy dialogue and genuine actorly chemistry that are all as good as or better than many of the action-adventure films that it looks to for inspiration.
These things are wonderful, we want them and they shouldn’t be afterthoughts or cosmetic tweaks. Above all (and lest we forget that these are games and not films or stage plays) good storytelling, excellent production design and good casting add massively to the enjoyment of playing a game. These things help us to let down our guard enough to be folded into the game world and lose ourselves in it, which is why we go to video games in the first place.
Then, unfortunately and inevitably, sooner or later, we head towards the time when a narrative game reaches its conclusion. What a mess.
While reminding ourselves once more that L.A. Noire is a game, a form of entertainment with its own particular pleasures and limitations, there are still three ways its makers could have gone.
The first, and the one I would have loved the most, was to stay strictly within the stylised, melodramatic parameters of Films Noir and the hardboiled novels from which they came. The really important thing to note here is that the details of these stories actually don’t make a whole lot of objective sense, but masters of the genre like Raymond Chandler gloss over this lack beautifully because they understand that the shape of the narrative is paramount. In the film version of Kiss Me Deadly, what is that in the box? It doesn’t matter. Hasn’t anybody in Film Noir L.A. ever heard of concealing a body properly or disposing of a murder weapon? Apparently not, and it doesn’t matter. Director Howard Hawks and the cast of The Big Sleep famously asked Chandler (writer of the novel and its adaptation) why a particular character died and who killed him. Chandler was not particularly embarrassed to admit that he didn’t know and didn’t care: that event just needed to be there to bend the narrative into the right shape.
So, lesson one: get the story’s shape right (and be a good enough writer) and deliberate fudges or accidental narrative missteps either won’t be noticed or they’re registered momentarily and then forgotten. That means, L.A. Noire, you can’t have your climax right in the middle of the narrative. You can’t have your big bad defeated halfway through unless it sets up a confrontation with bigger and badder at the real conclusion. In L.A. Noire‘s case, there’s a definite tailing off and meandering of the story until we end up with the repetition of an essentially identical hunt for a less interesting big bad, then the ostensible protagonist dies in a stupid and cheap way that provides virtually no narrative payoff either for the character himself, the supporting characters or we the players.
The second way they could have gone with L.A. Noire is a straight up, reasonably historically accurate setting. This is probably the least interesting option, but they seem to have opted for it as the overall tone anyway. It almost goes without saying that this is jarring and stretches credibility when combined with a storyline in which virtually every character, every crime and every plot point has some pre-existing, deep connection to the protagonist. As somebody else pointed out cogently a while back it’s actually rather eerie that in a “realistic” Los Angeles there are random strangers constantly passing comment on things that only your character would know he has done. If this was Phillip K Dick’s L.A. Noire and they were all on some mind-bending psychic gestalt drug, nobody would balk at such weirdness. The game’s conclusion completely throws this ostensible realism out for the sake of convenience, in any case, which has to be one of the cardinal sins of storytelling.
The third option, which they also sort of half-heartedly took, was to look at Film Noir revivals from the Seventies onwards (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, etc.) and the associated James Ellroy school of crime novels that are much more overtly grim and more emotionally, verbally, sexually and forensically forthright than their Thirties/Forties predecessors could ever hope to get away with.
Even the protagonists or “heroes” in these works (and indeed quite often in the original crime novels and Films Noir) sometimes come to a very nasty end, but usually the writer and the character have really worked hard to earn it in every sense of the phrase. If a character whose head you’ve been inside for hours or days suddenly dies, we should feel it as a human loss and that death should be paid off somewhere along the line, preferably with a proper conclusion, even if it’s a tragic one. We should not think “fuck you, that’s cheap, you ruined the story.”
I wish the team who worked on L.A. Noire had taken on board and understood L.A.Confidential‘s elegant and satisfyingly complex storytelling with multiple protagonists, instead of just ransacking its aesthetic, look and soundtrack. We should not, as in L.A. Noire, feel like we’re being handed over to a secondary character just so the writer can kill the protagonist that he or she has apparently grown bored with or never really liked in the first place. In the case of L.A. Noire‘s Cole Phelps, this is perhaps understandable since he starts out as a self-righteous, hypocritical bore and goes to his grave that way: having other characters constantly comment on it is both rubbing salt into the wound and drawing attention to your own failure as a writer unless you’re doing it because you plan on having him change dramatically. Putting a lampshade on a flatline character doesn’t help or excuse it.
Characters need to evolve through a narrative, not necessarily in a positive way, but there needs to be some movement. I’d be satisfied if I’d been sold a convincing reason for him being so uptight, and that emotional inflexibility either led directly to his downfall (you know, hamartia, the tragic flaw that’s been a staple of storytelling for millennia) or if he softened in a motivated and logical way into a more integrated person. As it is, the character’s ultimate demise is just an excuse for cheap, unearned sentimentality which also leaves the threads of other characters’ stories dangling.
All of this also points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the multiple viewpoints and the subtle weaving of seemingly unrelated narrative threads that a writer like James Ellroy accomplishes almost flawlessly. You can’t just switch characters out when you feel like it. It’s a sort of companion to Chekhov’s “if you put a gun on the mantelpiece, it must and will be fired”: if you want multiple viewpoints, the necessary characters can’t just pop up conveniently when you need them, they should have been there from the start. To be fair L.A. Noire does have a stab at this, but not a very successful one.
Going back to Red Dead Redemption, it also tries on an almost identically cheap and unearned appeal to sentiment by killing off its own (much more likeable) protagonist without giving you as the player any say or control in the matter. This is particularly galling since much less dire situations earlier in the game have been totally within our power to control. To add insult to injury, it comes hard on the heels of an underwhelming confrontation with the supposed big bad and this is another premature denouement after which you’re forced to finish the dregs of the game as a less interesting character of whom we previously saw little and cared less.
Again, a former criminal trying to get out of that life and yet being constantly, remorselessly pulled back into the very thing he knows will destroy him is incredibly solid dramatic material, material that has supplied many great Films Noir and crime novels. As a writer you’re an idiot if you can even screw that premise up. It makes perfect sense that such a man dies screaming in a hail of bullets. But that’s for the end of a story, not an inconvenient and aggravating final act blip. Think of The Wild Bunch‘s demented bloodbath ending, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with its iconic freeze-frame of the eponymous characters about to be slaughtered in exactly the manner we know really happened and that the excellent script has led us to expect.
These endings are right. Even though we’ve grown to have some affection for these murdering shits against our own better judgement, they’ve earned that ending as characters. Some part of us likes to see them go out like that. The writer has earned the right to despatch them that way and their sorry end comes at exactly the right part of the narrative, so we don’t mind at all. In fact we consciously or unconsciously thank the writer for concluding the story to our satisfaction, despite it being utterly tragic or horrific to think about.
Grand Theft Auto 4‘s ending is what one might call the grandfather of this Rockstar hat trick of ill-judged endings. Most of the game is unashamedly comical, including the ridiculous ultraviolence that is both encouraged and castigated throughout.
Right at the end, though, things go flying off the rails when protagonist Niko Bellic finally gets his long-awaited confrontation with a former army colleague, the anticipation and necessity of which was ostensibly the main reason for many things that Niko has done. Even though this quest for vengeance is clearly a McGuffin, i.e. a plot-driving engine whose inner workings ultimately don’t matter much, what should be a cathartic moment is more or less thrown away in about thirty seconds. Nor is it helped by the tone of the dialogue and plot suddenly veering into uncharacteristic deadly seriousness. This is a game, remember, in which getting drunk and then wiping out a gang of Yardies with a flamethrower is the work of an idle afternoon. Shortly after this underwhelming moment that should have been a climax, an in-game decision leads to the massive battle one would expect, but also to the relatively arbitrary and permanent loss of a key ally: either Niko’s girlfriend or his brother.
Once again, as players/audience we would not necessarily be averse to either or both of these likeable and relatively blameless characters paying the price for Niko’s life of crime, if the way it happened played by the narrative rules that the previous story and the moral framework of that world had established. My suggested last act fix would be for most or all of Niko’s allies to end up dead despite his desperate efforts to protect them, leading to the aforementioned orgy of vengeful destruction. Instead of Niko then just walking away and nothing much else coming of it, the truest thing to the Grand Theft Auto world would be for him to become a massive celebrity, for him to be admired, rewarded and validated by the mass media for his brutality and amorality in a way that he never could be as an immigrant working hard at a conventional and socially-sanctioned job. The writers of GTA4 nailed so many other plot points and scored so many satirical goals I find it incredible that they couldn’t bring the whole thing home properly.
Incidentally, Saints Row 2, which is a fairly blatant clone, actually does follow a similar narrative to GTA4 but with something very similar to “my” ending. It looks like the forthcoming Saints Row 3 goes even further down this road of “what if gangsters and murderers were literally celebrities?”. Clearly I’m not the only person to notice that something was skew whiff about GTA4‘s ending.
As for Uncharted 1 and 2: first two thirds, both are like playing an action film and it’s an enthralling, cinematic experience. In the final third of both games, the whole thing gets stupid. You can raise the stakes dramatically and in gameplay without resorting to superhuman adversaries that shouldn’t really exist even within the parameters of what’s been previously established as an emotionally heightened and generally more exciting version of the real modern world. It’s easier to write well for relatable human beings, including villains, than it is to write well for ten foot tall blue guys who are impervious to gunfire and never speak. Assassin’s Creed games hardly even make any pretence of being actual narrative arcs and appear to just end peremptorily when they’ve run out of space on the disc, safe in the knowledge that another one will be along in a few months.
But what do I know? I’m just a writer.