How to break a story.

What we want to see from the next Deus Ex

Regular readers (to whom I must apologise for irregular posting recently) will know that I am a bit of a gamer. Not a hardcore gamer. I'm devoted to a few specific titles:

  • Civilization (which for me peaked at Test of Time), though V was quite good)
  • The Battle for Wesnoth
  • Nethack (which I have been playing this afternoon as I often do when I am unwell)
  • Assassin's Creed
  • The Elder Scrolls (Skyrim in particular; I came late to the series, starting from Blivvy)
  • The Total War series (so affected have I been by this, the apogee of strategy games, that I vividly remember buying Shogun Total War (the first title in the series) in WH Smiths in Chipping Norton Highstreet).
  • Deus Ex
Deus Ex is the title I'm going to talk about this time, but before I do:

For me, gaming is about two things: the learning curve and the story. The durability of Nethack derives from the sheer number of variables in each playthrough. It's learning curve is pretty sharp, and very, very long. What gave Civ its durability is the combination of story with strategy with learning curve, and according to what strategy you start with, the middle game can vary enormously.

The Elder Scrolls is fantasy roleplaying WITH dressing-up. There are huge numbers of stories to explore, quests to fulfil, tasks to complete. I still haven't done all of them and this is partly because I always refuse some quests because they don't sit well with my personal morality. That is a measure of how immersive it is.

For a storyteller and reader, the standout title is Assassin's Creed. Where other first person roleplaying games (like The Elder Scrolls) put the emphasis on freedom, open endedness and encourage the player to build and develop his own character, Assassin's Creed is linear, indeed even the game's main conceit (that you are reliving memories of someone from the past) are linear and fatalistic. And you "die" if you deviate too far from the historical record!

I've already gushed about Assassin's Creed on this blog, so I'll leave off there.

Deus Ex is by no means in the same league as Assassin's Creed. True, the first title received considerable critical acclaim and (apparently) "cult" status. As a story it's pedestrian at best, though as a game, pretty good for it's time. What's impressive from my point of view is the amount of backstory, local colour and culture. If you take the time to play through slowly it reveals a remarkably deep and detailed world, which the sequel "Invisible War" refers back to and builds upon.

The latest title in the sequence is "Human Revolution". This is as close as I've ever played to an interractive movie. It's essentially linear, though there are some (limited) choices to make, but the weapons available make it possible to complete many sequences without killing anyone (or even being detected at all).

So you make your way through a series of morally ambiguous missions where you can choose your own morality but the outcome is essentially the same: you succeed or you fail. If you succeed, you advance the story. This is an experience very much like playing Assassin's Creed or indeed, reading a book. You discover the story through discovering the proper path through missions, by speaking to the right people, by reading the right messages, etc.

In addition, to a certain extent, you can determine your preferred "style" of play. Since this is essentially about completing objectives while everyone around you is trying to prevent you from completing them, style is about choice of general strategy, on a spectrum from "ghost" (leaving no trace of your passage, not even the occasional unconscious guard or displaced shipping crate) right through to "tank" (heavily armed and armoured killing machine). You can choose whichever suits you, and even develop and evolve your style as you play.

All this gives the story a personal feel; you can become immersed because both the main character's tactical, ethical and moral choices can be aligned with your own.

And then the break it completely.

With something called a "boss fight".

In a boss fight, you are sealed into an arena with an excessively overpowered adversary and you have to discover the narrow range of tactical choices that will make it possible for you to defeat him. Doing so usually involves key mashing - pounding on the Fire, Reload, and Heal buttons until the boss eventually goes down.

The history of Boss Fights (in video games) can be traced back to the original Space Invaders arcade game, where after resisting several waves of mini invaders you then have to defeat a mothership that drops huge bombs, and that you can only chip away at little by little with your feeble ground to air laser.

Outside of videogames, Boss Fights are common in action movies. Before that, they can be found in traditional literature worldwide, however some cultures have exaggerated them, the most notable being in Japanese strip cartoons (manga) and animated cartoons (anime), the latter of which include the frequently mocked gem "Dragonball Z" where the heroes have to keep getting forever more powerful in order to fight ever more powerful bosses.

Boss fights certainly have their place, both in literature and in videogames. It is a very good way of providing a sharply focused and distinctive climax, and some stories seem to require a (series) Big Bad to act as an ongoing antagonist through a sequence of stories. Yes, I am thinking of Buffy.

The Boss Fights in "Human Revolution", on the other hand, destroy all the hard work and effort that has gone into the immersive an ambiguous game world. Outside of boss fights, you are free to explore, go back, repeat, search again, look for a new or better path, scout out for better hiding places, plan your route or the order in which you will stun mooks or pop heads. Your strategic, tactical and moral choices affect your approach to each mission map.

In the Boss Fights, all this is thrown out of the window. You're locked in a room where someone has conveniently left ammo and medical supplies lying about the place, and you have to mash the keys until it's over. Or (as I did), cheat. Both key mashing and cheating destroy the sense of a carefully built-up story, and protagonist who although he's railroaded into situations can make his own choices as to how to resolve them is reduced to a mobile gun turret.

Now for Human Revolution there was a DLC called "Missing Link". I'll let PCGamer tell it:

Bosses like the Missing Link

Eidos Montreal have already figured out how to make a great boss fight in a Deus Ex game, and they did it: just the once. The final bad guy in the Missing Link DLC is just a guy. The challenge is all in getting to him: he’s in an office at the back of a large hangar crawling with powerful guards and security systems. But if you can get past them, there’s nothing to stop you just knocking out the final boss in a single punch. There’s nothing to stop you tazering him, chucking a gas grenade into his office, or anything else that works on normal enemies. There’s even a way to steal his awesome custom revolver before the final confrontation, leaving him with a crappy standard issue one when you fight him. More of that, please!

Exactly. You don't need a story development editor to tell you that a "boss fight" should fit seamlessly into the rest of the gameplay. In fact, you don't even need PCGamer. You only need Assassin's Creed

Time for the tenuous link to writing stories. Should be pretty obvious really, but I have observed in a large number of stories a plot structure and story arc that really looks as if the writer said to himself:

"An exiting story starts of slowly, gradually builds up to a climax and it then followed by a denouement" and has then  proceeded to shoehorn in said climax by means of a protracted boss fight. (I should perhaps mention that boss fights are not limited to thrillers and heroic fantasy. If anything, you get a lot more of them in chicklit.)

The boss fights in Deus Ex Human Revolution are positively neanderthal. You can almost hear a game designer saying "then we have a boss fight. You gotta have boss fights, right?"

Wrong. Like every story, you gotta have what the story requires. You can't write a story by numbers.

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