I just spent about an entire workday reading two video game reviews by Shamus Young.  They’re pretty good. Here he is on Arkham City; here he is on the Mass Effect series.

arkham city catwoman

What holds her goggles on?

Did I mention these are really long?  The Mass Effect one is in fifty installments.

Now, Shamus is pretty solid on gameplay. He agrees with me, as well he should, on the excellence of Arkham City and why its combat system is fantastic. He observes that the actual gameplay improves over the Mass Effect games. But his heart is elsewhere. What he really wants to talk about (and boy howdy, does he) is plot. And plot holes. And character problems. And worldbuilding problems.

I’m making fun of his verbosity, but I read these entire things, and he’s actually really good at this sort of criticism. He points out what works in the story, and what doesn’t.  He can be pedantic, but he’s actually quite forgiving about things-required-for-gameplay.  (Like, Batman is in the city for like 12 hours, and never once stops to eat or even take a drink of water. That’s OK, everyone understands how games differ from real life.) If you were the game designer, you’d probably bristle at what he has to say, but the thing is, he’s almost always right, and he’ll even explain, for free, how you could have done it right and make the game better that way.

On Arkham City, about the thing he likes best is the Joker/Clayface plot, and how the Big Twist is carefully foreshadowed.  And what he likes least is how passive Batman is about, well, everything.  He’s never prepared for anything, he is constantly getting sidetracked, and he almost never does any actual detecting.

I agree, but of course I think the game works despite this, perhaps because the “World’s Greatest Detective” side of Batman has always been a bit of a cheat. In the original stories he’s all about the punching. If he does come up with a clue, it’s not the Poirot style of using reason to knit a story together; it’s the comic-book or Star Trek trope of “Being a super-genius, I will come up with the next plot strand by staring at this computer.” Still, it’s nice when Batman actually comes up with something to do on his own that works, rather than being supplied it by a voice in his ear. Using Poison Ivy in the first game works. About the only idea Batman comes up with himself in Arkham City is going to see Catwoman, and that actually tells him nothing.

On Mass Effect he goes through the entire plot of all three games.  In short: he thinks 1 is masterfully done, while 2/3 throw out everything that worked and try to tell a new story.  If it worked, that would be OK, though weird; but in fact it’s completely incoherent.

In short: lots of people thought that the problem was 3’s ending.  But he makes the case that the series went off the rails at the beginning of 2 and made terrible decisions throughout. The ending didn’t suck any worse than the rest of the plot; but since it was the ending, nothing came afterward to distract the player back into acceptance.

But the characters and side quests!  Yes, these were almost entirely good, and the stories here were often fantastic. On the other hand, almost all of what was good storywise came from 1. He particularly admires the Rachni/Turian/Salarian/Krogan storyline. The Rachni invade and kick everyone’s ass; the Salarians uplift the Krogans to fight them; they succeed but then become a threat on their own; the Turians unleash the genophage to beat them down.

As Shamus points out, this isn’t just a story (A happened, then B happened, then C happened), but a plot: A happened, this caused B, and that caused C in turn. It sets up a complicated history and conflicts between the species and creates multiple intervention points for Commander Shepard. The Geth/Quarian subplot is also high quality. In both cases, the story was set up in 1 and not mishandled in 2/3.

What went wrong in the main questline in 2/3?  In a word, everything. Cerberus makes no sense. The Illusive Man has contradictory powers, goals, and methods– one moment he’s a terrorist, another he’s a misguided nationalist who’s the only person willing to fight the Reapers, yet another he’s a dupe of the Reapers (yet never accomplishes anything for them). Game 1 set up a clear goal for Shepard (learn how to fight the Reapers, using her ability to understand the Protheans and her Asari friend’s special competence in that area).  2 threw all that away in order to fight a completely different threat, for completely different masters.  Then the ending of 2 was itself thrown away so that Shepard could go back to the Reapers… only she doesn’t, she spends almost the entire questline fighting Cerberus. The whole Reaper thing– the supposed inevitability of synthetics destroying organics– is completely contradicted by the story of the Geth. In the whole of 2/3 there’s no entity, from Shepard on down, who has a clear rational goal in the main story and pursues it intelligently.

Plus, outside the “good subquests”, Shepard is never given interesting choices, or even good dialog options. In all of 2 she never gets any zingers in with the Illusive Man, and in 3 she never defends her time with Cerebus, even to the extent of saying she had no choice. And yet Cerebus never has any word for itself either; no pro-Cerebus character ever explains any good thing it’s doing.

Now, as it happens, I enjoyed 2 more than 1. (I never played 3.) But that’s because I value plot far less than Shamus does. I thought 1’s gameplay was mediocre; 2’s was far better, and the squad recruitment and loyalty quests were almost all satisfying.  And this difference in evaluation is just fine.  He doesn’t expect everyone to share his preferences, and he’s very good at explaining why, for those who really care about plot and worldbuilding, failures in these areas are really obnoxious.

It’s not that I don’t care about story at all– a good one adds immeasurably to a game. But I’m willing to forgive a lot if the core gameplay is well done.  Left 4 Dead, for instance, is the stupidest of horror stories: a constant run from mindless zombies. But it’s a blast while you’re in it.

(If you know me, you might be surprised that I’m not all about the worldbuilding in games. Well, I do love a good world! But it’s only one of the things that make a great game shine, and it really can’t rescue poor gameplay.)

If all this whets your appetite, he also has good analyses on why the Thieves’ Guild storyline in Skyrim is far worse than the one in Oblivion, and why Fallout 3‘s main story is idiotic.

Shamus doesn’t get much into the production of video games, and this is the one defect in his analysis. He obviously understands that games are written by teams, but I think he kind of assumes that some Head Writer is in charge of everything. Now, my own knowledge doesn’t go beyond reading some interviews and diving down fairly deeply into Fallout New Vegas‘s game editor. But I get the impression that Shamus thinks games work like this:

  • writer outlines the main plot, much like a screenplay
  • writer works out the levels, main quests, and side quests
  • maybe other people come in and do some work, but writer acts like a movie director in charge of it all

And I suspect development mostly works like this:

  • developers work on the game engine
  • level designers create a bunch of levels
  • art directors create pictures; these are turned into a shit-ton of assets
  • meanwhile, a bunch of ideas are tossed around for an overall story
  • writers cobble together dialogs that justify moving from Level A to Level B
  • quests are created, each one by some designer who doesn’t talk to any of the others
  • pretty much each of these steps are reworked several times as ideas change, problems arise, and various suits step in
  • oh shit we’re supposed to ship in 12 months, we’d better get our shit together
  • the levels that demo the best are selected; the rest are thrown out
  • writers frantically stitch together those levels, patching over the missing quests that would have made sense of the overall story
  • voice talent comes in; now rewriting anything becomes nearly impossible
  • the writers grumble because things don’t make sense, but the team is shell-shocked by now, finishing final art and level design and quashing the infinity of bugs QA keeps finding
  • oh jesus we promised it’d be out by now and we can’t delay any more, HERE IT IS

Again, this isn’t to say that Shamus’s criticisms are wrong. It’s just, there was never something like a script where everything was laid out.  There was probably a treatment of the main story, but it’s spectacularly out of date. The process is designed so that a dozen people can be simultaneously writing quests without checking constantly with their boss or each other. And when you’re actually doing a quest in the game editor, there are a million things to think about– all the McGuffins have to be placed in the game-world, all the triggering boxes set up, all the dialog logic coded. You have to juggle an amazing number of possibilities that most players will never see. Players focus on a few big decisions, but a lot of the logic in a quest relates to far smaller decisions: are there ways to accomplish a goal by stealth or by combat?  Did the player mindlessly wipe out NPC #2394 who you’d chosen to produce a plot point?  What if they stumble on things in the ‘wrong’ order? Do we have a quip for each of the possible 12 companions to utter? How many NPC dialog lines have to be doubled because they refer to the PC’s gender? What special options exist because you took some perk, or you have a high (im)morality score?

It wouldn’t surprise me if Bioware was aware of half of the problems Shamus found… only once a quest is written, voice-acted, with level design and art created… who the fuck wants to redo it?

I also suspect it’s a lot easier to get all this right if you can railroad the player more. Arkham City has lots of sidequests, but the main quest is entirely linear, and the player has no story choices. (Well, technically you have one, as Catwoman, but one of them just ends the game.)

Edit: One more thought… to understand why nerds write 50-post screeds like this, and why other nerds read them, you have to understand something about nerds: we are way more frustrated by something that’s 90% what we like, than by something that’s only 50%. People really got into Mass Effect (and forgave its dull combat) because of the setting, the characters, and the pure fun of being Shepard. People wouldn’t get this exercised over a terrible set of games.