This last week I finished Le Cartel Studio’s, Mother Russia Bleeds.  A throwback to Streets of Rage, Mother Russia Bleeds is a decent game that enjoys filling most its side-scrolling world with enemies and then letting the blood of those enemies splatter all over the place.  The game isn’t completely mindless, but it’s one of the those “old school video games” that proudly pushes its focus on gameplay rather than trying to come up with motivations for the characters or some sort of coherent reason for them to engage in the carnage of the combat.

“Well, duh,” you’re probably saying to yourself.  One needs only look at the trailer for Mother Russia Bleeds and you’d likely come to the conclusion that it isn’t going to yield a thoughtful musing on the horrors of conflict in Soviet-era Russia.  I wouldn’t think so either and that isn’t my complaint when it comes to Mother Russia Bleeds.  Instead my complaint is that the game bothered with a story at all.  

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Okay.  Hold on.  Back up.  I might have created some unrealistic expectations.  Saying that Le Cartel bothered with a story might be a bit of an overstatement.  They didn’t really.  There are lines of dialogue in between beat ‘em up sequences and paragraphs of exposition given during the loading screens – because that’s where I want to get my exposition from.  But the garble of words uttered by the heroes/villains was so painfully bland, I had to wonder why it was there at all.  Not only was the dialogue ridiculously vanilla, but it was delivered in the most lifeless way.  Boxes would pop out above the characters and font that looked like the default for Apple II PCs would read something like this:

 

Villain: I can’t believe you got past all my guards, buddy.  But you’ll never get past me now.

Hero: I’m done talking, I’m going to kill you.

Villain: You don’t stand a chance.  I haven’t revealed my ultra-secret power.

Hero: Ultra-secret power?  I don’t care, now you’ll die.

Villain: (reveals ultra-secret power)  No.  You will be the one who is dying.

End Scene.

 

Ugh.  After years of bad video game dialogue, I’ve come to simply ask that video games do the bare fucking minimum to get me engaged.  I don’t care if the plot is good, but at least make it something that I can imagine being good.  Again, I can already see the people ready to make excuses for this garbage, jumping up and down on their keyboards screaming, “The dialogue isn’t the fucking point, we just want to watch things turn into bloody exploding body parts.”

Sure.  I totally get that and I’ll agree that for the most part Mother Russia Bleeds delivers in the gameplay aspect.  But watching people run around, beating others to a pulp isn’t cool unless you like the people who are doing the beating and don’t like the people getting the beating – this is storytelling 101.  And in video games, this kind of investment is super easy because the players are going to naturally invest in the characters they control.  The job is done, it’s over, you’ve won.  Yet, developers all consider themselves some kind of fucking undiscovered Tarantino clone, with one-fourth of a shitty novel rotting away somewhere in their harddrive that always gets transferred to their new laptop because no one could imagine the horror of the world missing out on this brilliant Jean-Claude Van Damme fan fiction?  

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It’s time for video games like Mother Russia Bleeds to acknowledge their writing is fucking horseshit and cut that garbage out of their games altogether.  I could have put together enough of “the story” without the dialogue and probably would have liked the characters more.  If nothing else, it might have given the game a mysterious feel where the story was open for interpretation, thus making it all the more intriguing, but apparently Le Cartel didn’t want that kind of subtlety and needed to make sure players mindlessly button mashed through their incomprehensible and utterly dispensable story.

I’m sorry for leaning too heavily on Mother Russia Bleeds in this article.  The game is actually quite fun, and those who love side-scrolling beat ‘em ups should definitely give it a shot, but this is the just the most recent mistsept in a series of head-scratching choices by games to insert obscenely shitty stories into their games instead of just sidestepping the issue altogether.

Game like Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed make this mistake on a more grandiose level.  In fact, they fight against the very point of their game to do it.  Sandbox games are designed to let people wander about a well-crafted world, engaging in side activities that provide dispensable moments of fun, then come back to the story at their own leisure.  The problem is that most of these stories are written like terrible action films you find for $3 in a Walmart straight-to-DVD bin.  They constantly try to flirt with character-growth or interaction, forgetting that no one really cares.  No one is playing GTA V to see Michael get back with his annoying stereotypical Beverly Hills family, we’re playing it because we want to drive around and get into street races, shoot up cop cars, and be the best criminals we can be.  No one actually cares about the Assassins beating the Templars.  We just want to kill factory overseers who are exploiting children and climb to the top of Big Ben.

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All too often video game writers think that they’re doing something important, caught up in their own fantasy of being a modern Shakespeare while writing for a medium that doesn’t lend itself to writing.  Good storytelling relies on human interaction and organic discovery of motivation through actions and dialogue, which is why games made by Telltale and BioWare tend to have a leg up on most other games – because the dialogue is the focus of these games.  

For the majority of games, the narrative is about as valuable to the experience as the frame rate.  Sure, narrative helps with motivation and attachment, but simply having ownership of a character’s action usually does the majority of the work there.  A perfect example of bad video game writing that stays out of the way is Hotline Miami.  It’s pretty clear that the writers at Dennaton aren’t Charles Dickens – which is evident in Wrong Number.  But in Hotline Miami, they keep the writing and narrative to a minimum.  Characters talk in a proverb-like way with the protagonist, the whole plot is a disconnected fever dream.  Hotline Miami doesn’t boast a deep and coherent narrative, but it’s not supposed to, all it’s supposed to do is add a weird flavor to the game’s already-weird aesthetic.

The obsession with cinematic video games has led more and more developers to start thinking they need a plot or some convoluted nonsense to drive players forward.  But they don’t.  They don’t need to do much at all.  Provided the gameplay is fun and the design is strong, we’ll want to invest in most games on our own.  We don’t need anyone embarrassing themselves doing something that is clearly beyond their skill set.  You’re off the hook, developers.  You can stop with this terrible writing – it’s not helping anyone.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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  • This weekend I realized that video writing is actually not as bad as I thought. I think it’s actually much better than network television writing. I never realized it because I haven’t watched a second of network television since I was 16yo almost two decades ago. I realized it because my DVR got stuck on Comedy Central so I awoke to the much lauded “How I Met You Mother” which seemed like it was written at a level far substandard to Soap Operas, and a particularly insane montage of a CSI like show was on while I was visiting my family in town, and I usually think of it as just a loud annoyance, but I listened and was shocked at what I heard. So I the video game industry probably rightly believes that their writing doesn’t stink, when this is going on unabated in a neighboring industry, where the sole focus should be writing. I cannot believe that network television cannot find writers. I think they are targeting a demographic that is unable to communicate effectively, and it’s so cynical, but it seems like so much of “industry” media is masterfully rendering (exploiting for gain) an uneducated, or uneducable, core vein of our populations.

  • Foxwarrior

    I remember reading something in a guide to making levels for Half-Life 2 about the importance of having a break from the excitement approximately every fifteen minutes. I certainly appreciate relaxing from a particularly tense battle in Assassin’s Creed (or Hotline Miami) with a nice cutscene or two. I’m pretty sure the story breaks make it easier to binge those games for hours at a time without accumulating fatigue.