On Writing: Why Should I Care About My Video Game Wife? (a response)

This post is a response to Quietschisto’s “Video Games don’t make me love my Wife enough” on RNG. It’s a great rant on the common video game trope of the missing/kidnapped/dead wife as a plot hook – and you should definitely check it out! I wrote a novel of a comment, but still felt like I had some more to say, particularly on the root of the issue Quietschisto is discussing – specifically, lazy writing and character work in games. I can accept this in older games, when technology, writing, and character work wasn’t nearly as important as it is today. In the old Super Mario games, saving Princess Peach was a perfectly acceptable reason to pilot Mario all around the Mushroom Kingdom. Nowadays, however, video games are continuously evolving: better graphics, better stories, more in-depth characters, and vast, open-to-explore settings are pretty standard fare. So why then do many still fall back on the stale, tired trope of “your significant other needs your help” as a call to adventure? Especially when the game does no legwork to get you invested in this absent character, or in the relationship of two (or more) characters that is central to the narrative – telling the player that these things are important to the protagonist simply isn’t enough.

Forewarning: This post is going to have a lot of ranting about popular characters/games – if you disagree with my opinions, that’s great, good and completely valid. Because, these are just that – my own personal opinions. 

For me, the main issue stems from these video games abusing a core tenet of writing: the concept of “show, don’t tell.” If a game walks me through a bunch of missions with a certain character, or we see them interacting with our hero in a series of flashbacks, this builds the character up in our minds; we see them, and the bond they share with the protagonist, and it allows us as players to get emotionally invested in both the character, and their relationship with the hero. This is how you build characters, and how you create a deeper emotional attachment to the narrative itself. However, it is all too common in games to skip the “show” and jump straight to the easier “tell.” Instead of showing me my wife, and organically depicting why I should care about her, the game can just tell me to do so. Perfect, right? Is it considered character development to have our male lead simply think “Gosh, I miss my beautiful, intelligent, caring, self-sacrificing, [insert adjective here] wife.”? Well shit, thank you for that. Now I’m feeling much more motivated to run out and save her. And it doesn’t have to be just a “wife” character – it can be a friend, family member, or mentor. This is even more insidious when a child is involved, because it’s an even cheaper way of getting a reaction from the audience – of course no one wants an innocent child to be harmed, so regardless of character development, it’s an easy plot hook. Though this can be used effectively (re: Silent Hill) it’s still cheap. Let’s look at some of these tropes in action from popular games.

Red Dead Redemption 2_20181104204034
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that gets you to care about its cast of characters.

I’m going to use some examples from my initial comment on Quietschisto’s post, so you’ll have to forgive me rehashing them here: let’s start with the opening for The Last of Us. This introduction utilizes the tactic I just discussed, to great effect – we see Joel’s pre-teen daughter, Sarah, killed right off the bat. This obviously has a profound effect on Joel’s character, and serves to tug on the heartstrings of the audience. While I acknowledge that this is a dramatic, heartwrenching scene that aptly sets the tone for the harshness of the world, it’s also an extremely cheap way of getting the player invested in Joel as a character. We immediately sympathize with his loss, and understand the attachment he feels toward Ellie, as a substitute for the daughter he lost. Aside from this loss Joel is… a pretty bland character (feel free to boo and hiss in the comments below). He has the same gruff, macho persona as nearly every other action hero, and honestly, he’s quite dull. His relationship with Ellie (which is built upon the foundation of Sarah’s loss) is the only reason his character stands out at all. By using the death of a child (who isn’t important herself – it’s her impact on Joel that matters here) in the introduction, The Last of Us can avoid a lot of grunt work in building his character, because they utilize a cheap hook to make him immediately sympathetic.

Moving on to a slightly different example that probably best exemplifies the lazy, “you should care about this character because I told you so” writing trope: Resident Evil 7. The protagonist, Ethan, is lured out to the Baker farmhouse when he receives a letter from his wife that has been missing for years. On the off-chance of finding her, Ethan (of course) sets out to unravel the mystery of her disappearance. A lot of horror writing relies on this trope, because it’s an easy answer to the question: “Why doesn’t the main character just get out of this objectively terrible situation?” Well, because you can’t leave your family member behind, of course! But that’s an entirely different issue for another day. This scenario in Resident Evil 7 is exactly the trope we talked about in the beginning of this write-up: Ethan cares about Mia, but I don’t. The stakes get even higher: there comes a point in the game where you have a significant choice to make. With one cure for the strange virus that has infected the Baker family, you can choose to cure either Zoe, the girl you’ve just met, who has been helping you survive her deranged family, or Mia, your estranged wife.

Mia_Zoe
Mia or Zoe?

On its surface level, this choice is laughable: I mean, of course you’re going to choose Mia. Why would you pick the girl you just met over your wife? But if you take a step back, and look objectively at both characters, the game gives you no incentive to choose Mia over Zoe. Her character is completely two-dimensional (in fact, when you first find her, she attacks you) and aside from feeling bad for her, there’s no reason to like her. If the game hadn’t told you she was your wife, and you hadn’t survived the Baker hellhole to rescue her, there would be no reason to pick her. Zoe would be the better choice, given her (in some ways worse) situation, and the fact that she’s helped you thus far. This is the literal pinnacle of lazy writing.

Despite its myriad of other issues, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a fantastic example of a game that allows you to get invested in characters on their own merit. You simply spend so much time with the members of your gang, and Arthur Morgan, the protagonist, that it’s easy to get to know them. Through their actions, conversations with each other, and missions that you complete with them, they each develop their own personality and allow the player to understand them as individuals. Not all of them are likeable, but they are unique, and feel fairly realistic. Ultimately, this makes it extremely easy for the audience to connect with the game emotionally – to the characters, and to their story. It’s why players cry when Arthur dies, or feel deflated when the gang falls apart. In spite of its pacing – largely a result of its open-world design – the game has a phenomenal set of characters that players care about. Many games would benefit from taking this approach – of letting players see characters grow, and choosing whether to identify with them or not based on the things we’re presented, rather than what we’re told about them. Being told what to feel about a character is not only lazy, it’s manipulative.

The problem with “manipulative” writing is that it treats the audience like they’re stupid. Like players can’t be trusted to negotiate these characters and relationships on their own, and need the heavy, guiding hand of the writers to tell them who they should like, and who they should not. It’s aggravating when the writers tell me who I should like and why, while (conveniently) having narrative events support these assertions. Of course, some degree of nuance is often built in to make characters more three-dimensional (everyone loves a sympathetic villain these days) but more often than not, they’re paper people in a paper story. Flat and fairly transparent. I’ll get into this writing style with Life is Strange, and then a more recent example from Ghost of Tsushima, which I’ve been playing for the past few weeks. I’ll be putting a spoiler warning before the Ghost section, for people who haven’t completed it yet.

LiS

Life is Strange has a strong plot – it’s fundamentally a mystery, with some fun superpowers thrown into the mix. However, the characters are arguably the main pull of this game; if you aren’t invested in them, the game feels slow, and almost boring. Our two protagonists are Max and Chloe: even if Max is a little too bland, a little too vanilla to get excited about, Chloe is a secondary character for players to latch onto. She’s loud, strong-willed, and voiced exceptionally well by Ashly Burch. A lot of players adore her. I, however, found her character grating, and disliked her immensely. Enter David, the step-father, stage right. See, the game really wants you to dislike David. Because we’re supposed to identify with Chloe, and see things from her perspective, we’re supposed to hate David as much as she does. But here’s the catch: the game doesn’t do anything beyond this to make David unlikeable. It tries to warp narrative events around to make David seem creepy, and overbearing but he just… isn’t, not really. He’s hard on Chloe because she’s acting out, and being a brat. Maybe I’m just old and grumpy, but I didn’t dislike David at all, despite the games (poor) writing doing its best to make me feel that way. He doesn’t treat Joyce (Chloe’s mother) poorly, nor is he unreasonable. If David is really the awful asshole the game wants me to believe he is, then SHOW ME, don’t tell me to dislike him just because Chloe does.

Spoilers for Ghost of Tsushima ahoy! I’m starting with Yuna, who is a likeable character in her own right – she’s brave, and extremely intelligent. Throughout the game, you learn more about her backstory, and how difficult her life has been. The initial crux of Yuna’s character arc comes when she needs the protagonist, Jin Sakai, to help her rescue her brother, Taka. Her brother is a blacksmith – not a warrior. According to Yuna, he’s more on the cowardly side, a bit of a softie. Taka is extremely close with Yuna; they depend on each other, and are best friends. He’s treated like a child, and begins to worry his sister when he starts looking up to Jin and romanticizing his exploits as the Ghost. Of course, we’re told all of these things, not shown. As soon as the story sets this up – did I mention Taka is a sympathetic, younger-brother, who is definitely not a warrior? – I start wondering when Taka is going to die. Everything about this character, from his personality, to his relationship with Yuna and Jin, is designed to evoke sympathy from the player when he (inevitably) dies. And conveniently, Taka’s death also gives Yuna a reason to stay on Tsushima Island.

This writing is so heavy-handed, and such a blatant ploy to make me emotional, my eyes almost rolled out of my head. The game hasn’t actually done any legwork to get me invested in Taka as a character (I think he is present in about 3 or 4 tales) and everything I know about him has been told to me, rather than shown. It’s even more annoying because his death is used as more of a “motivational” stepping stone, rather than a device to make me feel bad for him as a person. Because Taka has died, Yuna (of course) needs revenge – she won’t leave Tsushima for the mainland, which was her initial plan, and she’ll stick around to help our protagonist kill the Khan. I can’t express how much this narrative convenience irritates me. I felt more sadness when my horse was killed than I did at Taka’s demise. RIP Kage – you really were the best horse. I wanted to talk about how Ryuzo is treated by the narrative here, but this post is getting quite long, so I’ll save that for my full review of the game.

Ghost of Tsushima_20200721203753
You really were the best, Kage.

I guess it’s time to wind down, now that I’ve been ranting for about 2000 words. I also feel like I’ve meandered a bit past my original point. My main gripes here stem from the lost potential that I see when looking at this kind of writing in video games; they have so much room to get players invested in stories and characters, especially when they have runtimes that exceed 30 or 40 hours. Of course, some structural limitations can make this more challenging – particularly in open-world titles. As Quietschisto pointed out in a comment on his original post “if you’re constantly exploring and dillydalling, you sometimes forget that a minor character even existed.” Looking at you, Breath of the Wild. Linear games have a much easier time working in memorable characters, but open-world games can achieve this as well, as Red Dead Redemption 2 did. Its high time writing in video games moved away from these tired tropes, and utilized the full potential of the medium for players to experience well-rounded, fleshed out characters. In neglecting these building blocks of writing, not only do the characters suffer, but the overall narrative can fall completely flat. The game will have no impact, and be entirely forgettable. The power of stories ultimately exists in the value that the audience (in this case, the players) ascribes to them. If there is no reason to be attached to narrative or character, then what’s the point?

Most games just want an excuse to jumpstart the adventure, and that’s fine, but there are countless creative ways to do so. Not every D&D quest needs to start with the heroes meeting in a tavern. Even games that are heralded as “generation-defining” and generally considered to be well-written can fall into this trap. The Witcher 3, to some extent, relies on this trope, when it presents the missing princess, Ciri, as a catalyst to get the story moving. Nor do I need the writing to feel like the developers are leaning over my shoulder, attempting to guide my thoughts and feelings on plot points and certain characters. If you show me a well-executed character, I am very capable of making my own judgement on their merit, thank you very much. I’m tired of manipulative, shallow writing. Not every game needs a terrible plot hook that attempts to get me invested in a relationship that I’ve been given no reason to buy in to. And then, throughout the course of a 30+ hour adventure, continues to give me zero reason to care about the missing/estranged/kidnapped significant other. Sorry, who? Oh, my princess is in another castle, you say? Good, she can stay there. I’m gonna go pick some flowers, maybe explore a cave or something.

A final thank you to Quietschisto for his original post – don’t forget to check it out!