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The blog has been stolen by ninjas

Video games have come a long way in terms of story over the past three decades.  Back in the days when 8 bit was the new 4 bit and you had to use your imagination to fill in the gaps between those pixels, the only plot you really needed was “you’re a good guy.  Everyone else is bad.  Kill kill kill.”

Today you have games with writers, real honest-to-god screen writers coming up with dialogue and plot twists, almost like video games are becoming a form of art.  (Eat it Ebert)  Games are now produced with a budget big enough to rival today’s blockbuster movies, and even in the goriest hack-n-slash game, you can find something unexpected.  Still, games can present a unique challenge to writers, since there are certain elements that absolutely need to be in each game.

There needs to be action.  There needs to be a lot of action and combat and Madden football and poker, or, I dunno, random white rhinos charging Cabella or something.  Therefore, most action and adventure games seem to fall into one of four generic game molds, with their story crafted around a simple premise you might find in an old school NES game.

The president has been kidnapped by ninjas.

This genre, coined by the old school NES game Bad Dudes, is pretty basic.  You are two brothers, who may or may not be twins, easily identified by your different colored pants.  Suddenly, a buffed out secret agent approaches the duo, wearing some kind of aviator jacket, I guess and drops the bomb.  “The president has been kidnapped by ninjas.”

The game pauses here to let this sink in.  Oh no!

“Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?” he continues, his mouth flapping in a poorly animated fashion.  That…  sounds like a challenge.  Ninjas must die, oh yes.  How dare they take our beloved president!

This genre encompasses most first person shooters today, with the words “president,” “kidnapped” and “ninjas” easily interchangeable with other villains or macguffins. Games like Halo, Half Life 2, Crackdown, Gears of War and Red Faction are good examples of this. Basically, this genre can be applied to games that, despite witty dialogue and a deeper web of intrigue, really don’t have much to offer you in the ways of plot.  These are games that, if the dialogue and cut scenes are removed, will really not affect the gameplay too much.  You go here, run down this path, kill the dudes, and rescue the macguffin.  It’s fun.  It’s violent.  You don’t need a reason.  These dudes look different from you, and so you need to shoot them with your magic space guns.  That’s elementary video game logic right there.

“The Earth is under seige by the covenant!  Are you a bad enough dude to save the Earth?”

“The human race is going to be wiped out by the locust! Are you a bad enough dude to fight back?’

And on and on.  Most of these games actually sold pretty well, because hey, this formula has been working for developers since, well, pac man I guess.  “Ghosts are in your maze.  Are you a bad enough dude to get all the fruit?”

I’m in an open sandbox world and man am I pissed.

The open sandbox game is a relatively new genre, so this one isn’t copied from the old Nintendo days.  It really

This open world angers and infuriates me!!

started to take off with Grand Theft Auto, believe it or not, and it’s a pretty simple premise.  You are the new guy in town, and you’re mad about something.  What are you mad about?  Doesn’t matter.  You could be a mutant freak because of a recent accident/experiment bent on revenge, a guy coming to town to murder someone who wronged you in the past, or, hell, someone could have run over your dog.  It doesn’t matter.  The world is your oyster, and you’re going to blow up as much of it as the game engine allows.

This genre works well for most of the open world games.  Prototype, Oblivion, all of the Grand Theft Auto games, Red Dead Redemption and more.  Red Faction works well here too, I guess, but that’s mainly because in addition to being in an open sandbox game, it also has an awful, irrelevant story.  It goes like this:  “People are being killed by ninjas the government.  Are you a bad enough dude to blow up Mars?”

Heck, this genre even works well for Assassin’s Creed and Fallout 3.  Am I saying that all there is to see is another sandbox game with nothing special to add?  Absolutely not.  Both Fallout 3 and Assassin’s Creed, not to mention the Grand Theft Auto games, have been staples in my game library for quite some time.  But at their core, that’s what they are.  Sandbox games.  You’re pissed.  Make dudes dead.

Now it’s time to save the world for great justice.

Ahhh, the standard catch-all category that encompasses most of the RPGs in existence.  The plot of these games can range from anything from simple to complex, with space travel or a horseback ride through a barren wasteland, but most of them follow the same mold.  You are an unlikely group of people/kids/animals who have stumbled into something way over their heads.  Now you have to save the world.

Now, I do loves me some RPGs, but even I have to admit it starts to get a little old.  Just about every Final Fantasy game has fallen into this genre, and even Mass Effect jumps headlong into it.  Why?  Because it’s a good plan of attack.  No one wants to play a game where the stakes are low.  That’s just stupid.  Don’t be dumb.

The problem with this is video games seldom break out of the tried and true mold.  From Fable 2 all the way to Lost Odyssey, the characters of your games never know quite what, exactly they’re getting into.  Sometimes the macguffin makes a return.  A sword, a gun, a crystal, something that is needed to put everything to rest and save the world/town/galaxy.

Is there anything wrong with this kind of game?  Absolutely not.   Mass Effect 2 would admittedly have been a lot less cool if instead of saving the galaxy again, Shepard and crew just held a really bitchin’ party, bro, but like the Reapers weren’t invited.

We don’t need no stinking plot, just give us the loot already.

Similar to the Bad Dudes genre, but with one major, important difference.  Instead of wasting any time whatsoever on the plot, the game developers decide instead to make a bunch of MMO style quests with vague weapon rewards of XP gains to cover up the game’s one true mantra:  “Monsters are out there.  They drop loot.  That loot is better than my gear.  Therefore, I must kill everything.”

Yeah, this one isn’t rocket science.  MMOs like World of Warcraft and City of Heroes don’t just fall into this genre, they run up to it an embrace it like a long-lost relative.  Many other games have fallen into this mold too, like Diablo, Borderlands, Too Human, and others, many of which never lasted long enough to get a fan base.

How will you know when you’re playing one of these games?  Well, did you just talk to an NPC?  Did they give you something vague and mindless to do, like, oh, killing an endless number of scaggs or smiting goblins?  Did you completely blow through the wall of text to get back to fighting?  Do you keep telling yourself just one more every five minutes for three hours?  Yeah, you’re playing one.

So, what does this all mean?  Is Tophat saying games aren’t worth playing or they’re reusing plots?

Well, no and yes.  Take for example, Bioshock.  The first one.  Not the second one with Big Daddy drill time.  That’s pretty soundly under the Bad Dudes genre.  Andrew Ryan has kidnapped Rapture.  Are you a bad enough dude to rescue Rapture?  But along the way the game twists and turns with one of the best plot twists I’ve ever seen in a game.  You keep playing, dragged into the game’s atmosphere and plot, and fight the last boss.  But only then do you realize what you’ve done.  You have proven that you are totally a bad enough dude to save Rapture!


Game developers reuse these plots over and over again (with the exceptions of party games and puzzle games like Katamari Damacy) because they need to.  They need action.  They need adventure.  No one is going to want to play a game where a dude is not bad enough to save the president.

In the NES game Bad Dudes, after numerous adventures and buildings full of ninjas, the two different-colored brothers finally get to the showdown.  The final boss emerges from the helicopter, and the two brothers leap up to face him.  It’s time to get down to brass tacks and see who really is the baddest dude.  And the answer, of course, just as it has been for the past 30 years, is that you are.

Then, of course, Reagan takes you out for burgers.  And that’s really the baddest thing a dude can do with his time.


6 Responses

  1. Tetrominoes are falling from the sky! Are you a bad enough dude to stack them into neat little rows so they magically disappear?

    • Yeah! That’s the spirit! Though in that case it helps if you assume the tetris-things are actually evil and will eat kittens if left unchecked.

    • Haha! Of course the storyline in Tetris is a bit subtle, but the Hollywood summer blockbuster two years ago really cleared it up. You remember, right?

      • Nice! Um, I’d actually see that in the theaters.

  2. you like pac man check out the video this swiss artist made, it’s pretty awesome. http://monkeybusiness1.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/avant-garde-atari/

    • Okay, yeah, that’s pretty sweet. One person having too much time on their hands is one thing. Finding a whole room of people who also have too much time on their hands is an accomplishment!

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