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Cut to the Chase: Undressing the Video Game Plot

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Wednesday, Aug 31, 2011
Deus Ex: Human Revolution may prove Coco Chanel right: "before you leave the house, take one thing off.”

Coco Chanel is often attributed with the phrase “before you leave the house, take one thing off.”  I’ve always felt that this was a sensible idea in fashion, and as someone who writes about various arts: literature, film, video games, etc,, and as someone who practices the art of writing, it also seems a sensible approach to revision and editing in most instances (though it is a tough one to master, as this overly long sentence testifies to).  It is, of course, easy enough when you are creating something to get carried away in attempting to add more, more, more and lose a sense that simplicity is sometimes best.


This phrase has come back to me a lot over the week or so that I have spent playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game that (while I admittedly admire an awful lot) I think might do well to listen to Coco.
  
Human Revolution, like most large mainstream releases, is a long game, and I don’t necessarily begrudge it its length per se.  As a consumer, I certainly want to get some bang for my buck, and if I will be shelling out 60 clams for a gaming experience, I want that experience to last for a bit.  Like many story-driven games, though, there is an awful lot of fairly conventional padding in the form of “side quests” that exist (it seems) in order to speak to that “need.”


Now, the press releases say different.  Materials that I received from Square suggested that players who want to learn more about the world of Deus Ex and the background of its protagonist, Adam Jensen, would do well to play these optional side quests.  In other words, they aren’t intended as pure padding, as they are simply there to make the game’s story richer.


Which is true and it’s not.


The side missions that involve Jensen’s background were—for the most part for me—pretty interesting.  More importantly, they do have relevance to the main plot.  The other stories, though, that concern “the world” were, however, much less interesting.  I complained a bit about these in my review last week, saying:


Yes, you can run a mission or two out of a brothel for a working girl concerned about the safety of one of her fellow hookers.  Ho hum.  And, yes, one of your allies at Sarif industries has an old friend’s murder that she wants you to look into because “something doesn’t feel right about it.”  Mmm hmmm.  These aren’t the game’s best moments and serve to distract from the much more tightly plotted and definitely more interesting central storyline. (G. Christopher Williams, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, PopMatters.com, 26 August 2011)



I called both of the above “situations” examples of “some rather tired video game cliches and stock characters” because, well, they are.  Now, Human Revolution isn’t Hamlet or anything, but its central plot is pretty good, pretty engaging science fiction.  Its voice acting is also not the strongest, but then again, the acting in Star Wars isn’t the strongest either, but the chemistry of the actors, the mythology that it creates, and the overall wonder of the world holds up the weaker parts of the production pretty well.  The central storyline in Human Revolution and the ideas that it explores also hold up some of its weaker performances and sketchy bits as well.  But those side quests. . .  not so much.


You remember when Star Wars was re-released, right?  Lucas returned that scene where Luke meets an old buddy from Tatooine right before he joined the Allaince’s raid on the Death Star to the film.  Remember how you wished that Lucas had followed whatever instinct that he had had before (or the better instinct of a post-production editor circa 1977) and left that horrific bit of unnecessary nonsense on the cutting room floor?  Right.  That is the situation with some of Human Revolution‘s side quests.  It makes what is overall a good experience just look kind of dumb sometimes.


The thing about that scene in Star Wars is that it doesn’t help the movie—it hurts it—and somebody seemed to have realized that before the original release.  Basically, despite having shot that scene someone realized that, well, before you leave the house, take off one thing.  If you have an otherwise strong looking outfit, sometimes it is better to get a little basic and let the strengths of the core of that look speak by themselves.


I think that sometimes out of a desire to provide the player with a sufficient amount of things to do in a game, far too often video games are afraid to leave story bits “back at the house” because they represent “playing time.”  I realize that editing and revision goes on in video games.  I have been a part of more than one beta tests over the years, and I have clearly seen developers tweak gameplay elements, fix balance issues, and redesign graphics and sound for the sake of “getting it right,” but I can’t recall ever seeing a game lose a bad mission in what is essentially post-production editing.  Now, I certainly could be wrong.  I haven’t ever worked in-house for a game company, but it sure seems like any story editing and revision largely occurs pre-production and that no one takes a good hard look in the mirror right before shipping and says, “this part, this part makes the story lumpy, makes it look bad.”


I realize that Human Revolution offers these weaker bits as optional exercises.  I don’t have to watch what might otherwise be “deleted scenes” on the DVD (and by the way, the deleted scenes on most DVD’s most often just scream that Chanel was right on the money about letting parts of a whole “look” go when necessary).  I guess I can serve as my own post-production editor in the game.  However, I can only know that after experiencing themand there are enough games that have added side quests that don’t hurt the main thrust of a game (and maybe even enhance the experience) that I feel like this is a matter of just using some good editorial judgment. 


Rockstar is imperfect at the “less is more” approach to story editing, but I really do think that some of the side missions in, say, GTA IV add to the overall experience of Liberty City.  (The Brucie missions, for example, which are often very funny and tonally consistent with the satirical aspects of the GTA universe, a tone that the storytelling in GTA IV‘s main missions frequently lacks.  I tend to think that the Brucie missions and some others like them serve to maintain a tonal consistency with the rest of the series, something helpful for fans given the more serious tone that Rockstar experimented more with in this iteration of the series.).  Fable III, love it or hate it, features, perhaps, one the best optional quests of all time, “The Game,” a really hilarious send up of tabletop role playing games that, of course, also exists in a role playing game (so, it serves as a nice “meta-satire” of Fable itself and of you, the player).  That the whimsical qualities of “The Game” fit in perfectly well with Fable III‘s overall tone, again, doesn’t hurt the game; it “goes with” the overall “outfit.”


I guess that all I want to suggest that is in all of the post-production editing that a game goes through, that the plot needs a second glance as well, which admittedly I assume is not exactly the easiest thing to do at that point.  Money has been spent, resources have been expended to craft some additional sequences, and it is hard to get a sense of the lumpier parts of a 25- or 40- or 60-hour epic plot when you have been over and over it again and you won’t likely be playing from beginning to end once again and experiencing it the way that a player would—over the long haul.  That’s a pretty big mirror to look into and still see all of the details in one glance.  Nevertheless, maybe just follow Chanel’s guideline.  At least one thing in there is probably ugly and distracting, so just take it off.


 

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