There has been a rash of FPS titles with horrendous plots lately, so it might be helpful to talk about an FPS that had a pretty simple but fun story that actually worked with its game design. As a genre, the FPS has never really required much thought in terms of writing. It can certainly feature it, but technically even Doom explained itself pretty well in just one paragraph. The concept of “demons, gun, get to it” does not really need a lot of explaining. Yet today something like Modern Warfare 2 comes out, and it’s an incoherent mess. Every mission is pulling some James Bond crap or taking place as a part of the world’s most unlikely invasion, which is a shame because the best parts of Modern Warfare and the other Call of Duty games were the moments that just felt like being a soldier. Star Wars: Republic Commando dodges these narrative pitfalls despite the fact that it even takes place in a science fiction setting. A squad-based FPS relying on a fairly nuts & bolts design, it is a great example of a game that won’t make you roll your eyes while playing.
The setup is pretty simple. You’re the leader of Delta Squad, and you have three other clone commandos working closely with you. There are four general commands (follow me, attack, go here, secure area) and hotspots scattered around the map where you can order a commando to snipe, grenade, or plant bombs. You have four basic weapon types and a fifth slot for whatever alien weapon you pick up. Most maps will feature a couple of different hotspots to drop a squadmate, and you can always leave them to their own devices. You can also set up ambushes by getting aliens to follow you or take a more aggressive approach. It’s all very simple and fluid, which means that complex maneuvers aren’t exactly an option because of gameplay that is always fast and easy. Writer Gatmog points out in his review, “I liked the way squad commands felt intuitive, but I wouldn’t call it tactics. It doesn’t require any real problem solving by the player: simply mousing over points on the map will show “hot” areas, or actions a squad member can complete. Clicking on these points will issue the associated command, but it’s not like you get the option of storming a room with thermal detonators or sneaking in quietly. The objectives and their solutions are completely transparent” (“Attack of the Commando Clones”, Tales of a Schorched Earth, 2 Feb 2005).
The reason these elements hold together as a game is that your squadmate’s AI is pretty handy. They’ll automatically move into cover without being ordered to as you advance, ordering them to stay just makes them hold position. They make quite a few kills on their own, especially when sniping. They can die, but these deaths will usually result because you ordered them into heavy fire. If one goes down, it’s not a big deal because they can be revived so long as you can stand over them for a few moments. Most important of all, they can also revive you. If your shields and health go to zero, you can order someone to rescue you. It teaches you to stick with the squad and not go charging into a room—because, if it’s overrun with enemies, the commandos will either hold back until it’s safe or get killed trying to save you. The relationship with these characters starts at the game design level.
Like all Star Wars games, Republic Commando has a much easier time telling its story because it doesn’t have to explain itself to anyone. We already know what the Trade Federation is and why these droids are attacking us. The game barely even has a main villain, you just see General Grievous once before having to fend off his rave-party bots. Even if you did manage to shield your eyes from the prequels, it’s not like you have to infuse an FPS with an intense personal motivation for the player. A bunch of people are shooting at you, people understand that it’s best to fire back. The dialogue instead mostly consists of you and your squadmates talking. Rather than getting sucked into the usual video game banter of personal motivation or why we have to kill the evil wizard, the Commandos just talk about what’s going on around them. The game doesn’t have to waste time explaining a lot of intricate details that aren’t really relevant anyways.
In Republic Commando, each soldier has a distinct personality that passes the RedLetterMedia test of being describable without mentioning their job, appearance, or actions. Scorch, voiced by Raphael Sbarge (Kaiden/Carth from Bioware’s games), is the crazy one, Sev is the violent, angry type, while Fixer is the “all serious” soldier. Your own character is voiced by Temuera Morrison (the guy who played Jango Fett) with a nice balance of gruff orders and a few sarcastic comments. Rather than the irritating banter from soldiers that you hear in titles like Halo 3, like, “We totally owned those guys!”, here there are character conflicts and subtlety. Scorch and Sev’s personalities conflict, and they spend a lot of the game teasing each other. Send Scorch to resuscitate Sev, and he’ll call out, “Yes Sir! Resuscitating Sev . . . again”. After pulling out of a particularly ugly fight Sev comments, “I can’t . . . I can’t believe it. I’ve lost count of how many droids I’ve killed.” This banter is particularly effective because it is often based on your orders, so it acts as feedback on your play.
Having actual normal conversations between characters resolves an issue for writing drama that Kurt Vonnegut once outlined: all dialogue needs to either advance the plot or develop character. The biggest flaw in Modern Warfare 2 is that it has too much of the former and almost none of the latter. Everyone is just yapping about saving the world or truth or whatever. I’m not even sure that I could name one distinct thing about Soap or Ghost without describing their appearance in the game. Soap is that guy with the mohawk, Ghost has that cool mask. Compare it to Modern Warfare, in which Gaz and Price are constantly bantering and developing themselves as characters.
A great post over at Destructoid breaks down another major problem in games writing. Kauza contemplates the dialog in Dragon Age, “Now that I’ve had plenty of time to explore what made the game’s dialogue so boring for me, I’ve traced it back to a lingering problem in games that seems to go back many, many years: dialogues are treated like monologues. Characters speak to fill the air in a Shakespearean tradition that the writing itself can’t hope to stand up to. A character who stands in one place and simply talks is the general tactic used by the game to deliver spoken lines. And oddly enough, those random conversations that take place as your party walks were some of the only ones that held my interest” (“The Future: Demanding More from the Voices in Video Games”, Destructoid, 11 January 2010). Part of what makes the squad banter so entertaining in Republic Commando is that your own character talks. There is a conversation going on between multiple people, which is infinitely easier to write and keep interesting than someone just lecturing in your general direction.
One caveat about the game is that you can’t get fussy about corridors and factories because that’s where just about everything takes place. Each campaign is broken into about four or so missions, each with a basic goal like get to the loading bay or blow this thing up. In turn, each level is broken up into small objectives that are right in front of you (get past minefield, unlock door, defend position) while the larger campaign goal is always being elaborated in the background. Quality can be a bit uneven here. In my opinion, the Wookie planet was the weakest campaign in the game while the second campaign is possibly one of the best levels that I’ve ever played in an FPS. This is because the dramatic tension is properly presented in the second campaign. On Kashyyyk, they ramble about cutting off supply lines, blowing up bridges, or getting the Wookie’s ammo, but we’ve never seen or experienced any of this. It’s all just radio jabber to me with no real narrative weight. You have to let the player see and interact with the things that they are supposed to consider important.
During the second campaign, which takes place on board the ship The Prosecutor, the situation slowly escalates as we see room by room that the ship is falling apart. Then we see the Trade Federation ship arrive. Later we see it out a ship window opening fire on us. The ship shakes, throwing off our aim, and the ship’s voice announces that hull breach is imminent. Gas gushes out of pipes, and the tense last man standing finale is a fantastic race against time to get the ship’s turrets working. The tension develops naturally in the level by having us observe our surroundings, the commando’s chatter, and carefully pacing the difficulty with that chatter.
Ultimately, what Republic Commando gets right is the point that Jordan Mechner makes when talking about writing for video games. Player motivation is everything (“Designing Story-Based Games”, Jordan Mechner, 11 November 2009). Why am I doing this, why should I help this person, and what happens if I don’t should all be driving the player’s relationship to the story. Missions where I can see or experience the conflict and appreciate why I have to finish an objective are always going to be better than ones where I’m just told to do something, which is why Modern Warfare 2’s convoluted story about whatever it is that they were rambling about in those cutscenes screws up such a simple process. You can have all the intrigue and plot twists that you want, it’s not going to amount to anything without genuine characters and interaction.