25 May 2015

Today’s article is a pet peeve of mine. I wanted to write about it for a long time: in fact, a draft of a similar subject has been lying on my hard drive for a year now. It’s not a big issue, it’s not really important, but I still wanted to get it off of my chest. The original draft was about what I call “tonal dissonance” in the context of Bulletstorm, but after playing Metal Gear Rising I realized I could expand on it. This is also an opportunity for micro reviews of both games! So let’s get started.

Dissonant bullet storm

I originally defined “tonal dissonance” to describe the jarring shifts in tone that occurs every time a cutscene starts or ends in Bulletstorm. For the unaware, that game is a spiritual successor to Painkiller, a fast-paced first person shooter that tried to capture the essence of old school shooters like Doom and Quake. Like its predecessor, Bulletstorm is all about moving fast and shooting even faster, although it does also attempt to bridge with modern concepts such as hiding behind cover and iron sights aiming. The game’s tagline is “kill with skill”, and that describes the core unique gameplay mechanic: the more creative you are in your dispatching of the mutant hordes, the more points you get for buying ammo and upgrades. This require being able to quickly think on your feet and improvise ludicrous strategies for maximizing your score.

And as a game, it works pretty well. It’s a completely ridiculous balls-to-the-wall mess that delivers just enough dopamine to make you grind through its various little flaws. And as a narrative experience, it can also be seen as an effective self-aware parody of the tropes associated with chunky space marine romps like Gears of War. It’s campy, stupid, engaging, and overall pretty great… at least until a cutscene starts, at which points it tries to become all serious.

And that’s where tonal dissonance kicks in: the non-interactive segments of Bulletstorm depict the tragic struggles of a man who is trying to redeem himself after his mad quest for revenge has killed everyone who was ever close to him. And then once the cutscene ends it’s back to gratuitous swearing and dick blasting, with little to no transition to speak off. It’s like switching between two shows on different channels and expecting them to make sense when mashed together. The issue isn’t the shift in tone, it’s how brutal the shift is, and you get the feeling that the game’s designers and writers didn’t really speak to each other during development.

So, if you like shooters, Bulletstorm is a great game. Just skip the cutscenes and you’ll be fine.

Pretentious metal gear

Let me start off by saying that Metal Gear Rising has hurt my thumbs quite a lot, and it makes the cardinal sin of following a normal curve for its difficulty before ramping it up right for the final boss. Dead Space 2 made the same mistake and I haven’t forgiven it yet. On the other end, I started it, blinked, and seven hours had passed, so I guess it’s a good game as well, and I say that as someone who isn’t really a fan of hack-and-slash spectacle fighters. Just like Bulletstorm, Metal Gear Rising is at its best when it’s campy and stupid, although I was surprised to enjoy its story, and more importantly its characters, as much as I did. I would regularly call up Raiden’s partners on the codec just to hear what they had to say about the most recent plot development.

Unfortunatly, Rising suffers from what we programmers like to call “legacy”, and it is at it’s weakest when it tries to be Metal Gear Solid. MGS as a franchise has never been really sophisticated. It does ask some interesting questions, but it’s also sometimes preachy and pretentious. Rising’s story works best when it’s standalone, but sometimes it tries to refer to events from real life or the rest of the Metal Gear franchise, and that’s when it breaks down. Sure, the patented MGS anti-war message is there too, but it’s not subtle, it’s not elegant, and it just feels forced, as if the writers had to meet a Metal Gear quota to be able to put the name on the box.

And again, the same brutal shift in tone happens, except this time it’s worse because it’s not only in cutscenes, so you can’t dodge them by just skipping them. It will jarringly alternate between the silly over-the-top antics of Raiden the cyborg ninja and Bladewolf the robot canine to a plot about a PMC harvesting the organs of orphans. And the final boss is one of the most out of place things ever pulled out of a writer’s ass this side of Final Fantasy VIII’s Ragnarok. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun as hell. I just think it should shut up a bit if it doesn’t have anything interesting to say.

If you like spectacle fighters, go ahead. Just make sure you grab your pile of salt and increase your level of suspension of disbelief before you get slicing.

The bottom line

The problem I have with those two examples is that in both cases, I feel like the developers couldn’t make up their mind on what they wanted. Blending comedy and drama, or camp with tragedy, has been done before with great success. Making your work ostensibly silly will make any emotional moment hit harder. On the other side, lightening up an otherwise serious story with some comic relief can help smooth out the pacing. But you have to be careful with it: if you constantly switch between the two without any sense or direction, you end up with a schizophrenic mess that becomes hard to follow.

I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s the misguided notion that True Art is angsty. Or that seriousness is required for a work aimed at adults, as if only children were allowed to enjoy lighter stuff. Or maybe it’s because everyone else does it and they want in too. And since a AAA game needs a lot of sales to be viable, major publishers prefer to go for mass market appeal by making easy to digest entertainment. As a result, you get drama-hungry developers trying to shoehorn it in something that would otherwise be dumb. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong in attempting something more severe — after all, most of my favorite games are in the “hard on the brain” category — but everyone on the team needs to be on board with that plan, otherwise you end up with something inconsistent, which is exactly Bulletstorm’s and Rising’s problem. Another example of this phenomenon is the otherwise exellent horror game franchise Dead Space, which is as ridiculous as Evil Dead despite claiming to be as serious as Alien.

Look, not every work needs to be deep. Not every work needs to challenge its audience. Not every work needs to ask tough questions. Not every work needs to depict heavy themes. A light hearted adventure will do just fine if it’s well executed. I don’t care if what you make is stupid, as long as you are fully aware of what you’re doing, and you show it. And if your game mechanics and systems encourage the player to have their protagonist act in a certain way, you can’t then go and contradict that in non interactive segments, as if you had two different characters running around. Writing a game story is hard, so if you can’t pull it off, don’t.

In short: do what you want, but don’t compromise. Compromising is what’s ruining it, although “ruining” is probably not the right choice of word here, considering I still like all the games I mentioned in this article quite a bit. It’s just something I keep seeing over and over again, so I figured I might as well dump it here for future reference.

When the industry inevitably learns from its mistakes and stop doing that, I want you all to know that I fucking called it.