Monthly Archives: December 2008

Tedious backstory and the problem with video game stories

This deserves an essay-length post, but for now video game fans should check out this excerpt from Nathan Rabin’s latest My Year of Flops entry at The Onion A.V. Club. It’s about Delgo, a fiasco of an animated movie, but perfectly describes why most video game stories are terrible.

Delgo immediately digs itself into a huge hole with an incredibly confusing, convoluted opening explosion of exposition via voiceover narration from Sally Kellerman outlining a fantasy realm staggering in its pointless complexity. You see, once upon a time in a land called Jhamora there lived a bunch of slithery lizard-people known as the Lokni. A loss of natural resources forced a bunch of dragonfly-looking motherfuckers known as the Nohrin to settle on Jhamora with the permission of the Lokni. Alas, Sedessa (voiced by Anne Bancroft), the power-mad sister of Nohrin king King Zahn (voiced by Louis Gossett Jr., the young people’s favorite) decides to terrorize the Lokni out of a sense of racial superiority. In the process she and her goons murder the father (Burt Reynolds) of the titular young Lokni boy-lizard (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.). Meanwhile, Sedessa is stripped of her wings and banished from the kingdom of the Nhorin as punishment for her brutality. Fifteen years later, Sedessa forms a strategic alliance with a race of ogre people and conspires with one General Raius to exacerbate tensions between the Lokni and Nhorin people so war will break out and she can seize power.

Does that make any fucking sense at all? Incidentally, all of this unfolds in the five minutes of exposition that opens the film. I was immediately lost. I found myself thinking, “Why am I expected to care about this?” and “Am I going to be tested on this?” instead of waiting breathlessly to find out what happened next. Before the action had even started I was hopelessly confused. …

Movies like Dragon Wars, Wing Commander and Delgo err in thinking that sci-fi audiences embrace movies like Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars and The Matrix because they have elaborate, involved mythologies, not despite then.

The Lord Of The Rings of the world suck audiences into their fantastical worlds with engaging characters, non-stop spectacle and compelling storylines, then get them to care about their mythologies. Delgo, on the other hand, assumes that the battle is won before it’s even begun and that audiences will give a mad-ass fuck about the complicated interrelationship between the Lokni and the Nohrin races because the film’s mythology was cobbled together from bits and pieces of The Dark Crystal, Lord Of The Rings and Star Wars.

I can’t begin to list the number of video games that make this mistake. Even critically acclaimed or otherwise interesting games, like Okami and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, stunt themselves with this nonsense.

I stopped wanting to explore Oblivion’s world and backstory, for example, as soon as I came across gobbledygook like: “The Khajiit began the fight in an unusual way by sending tree-cutting teams of Cathay-raht and the fearsome Senche-raht or ‘Battlecats’ into the outskirts of Valenwood’s forests.”

In light of Rabin’s great column, I’ll be interested to try out some of the winners of the Interactive Fiction Competition that Chris Dahlen notes in another A.V. Club piece.

Innovation-by-omission, and other thoughts

I’m writing most of my journalism-related posts at Publishing2.0 these days (“most” meaning the few that I get around to writing). So you should check out a couple recent posts: Why not writing a story is innovation, and how “scrapbook news” can help reframe the discussion about citizen journalism and crowdsourcing.