Captain Obvious

So after a couple of completely insane weeks, I’m back to my playthrough of Dead Space. I’ve just begun Chapter 3, so please don’t tell me how stupid I am in the event that I’m wrong about my surmises at this point. Winks and smiles will be adequate.

So something that I think irritates me about a lot of games is the “Captain Obvious” nature of a lot of the narrative. I know that at some point there was a game where the “guide” you are working for really was meant to be your friend, but it seems that in most of the games I’ve played or replayed recently, that “guide” is full of crap: PortalBioshockDishonored… And yes, I know that there are characters in Bioshock who aren’t leading you astray (Tennenbaum, for instance), just as there are games where the friendly neighborhood guide isn’t an ass (Elizabeth in Infinite isn’t evil, for instance) and games where you know from the get-go that, to quote Ackbar, “It’s a trap,” like Arkham Asylum.

My proverbial spidey senses are telling me that Dead Space, though, is one of the former. I profoundly distrust Hammond. Every time he tells me to do something or go somewhere I want to tell him what he can go do with himself. And yet the game refuses to allow me to do that, so I merrily go along with the plan, fully expecting him to betray me or try to eat my brain at any moment.

All this leads me to the point that I profoundly dislike when the narrative of a story – movie, game, book – is extremely predictable. I find this odd, since I enjoy re-watching, re-reading, and re-playing things almost to the point of memorization (in some cases). I can enjoy something if I know the whole story, so why does it bother me when I can guess the outcome?

I guess the answer is that I feel like predictable stories are lazy. And when I say that, I don’t simply mean that a story’s ending or major plot arc is predictable. I say “predictable” when I not only know what’s happening in the major plotlines, but when the accoutrements that accompany it are just as banal. In Dead Space, for instance, I go into a room/hall and something jumps out of the wall or ceiling, I shoot it, the music stops, I go pick up some money or plasma, and then I proceed, knowing full well that sooner or later Hammond is going to try to kill me, and yet I have to keep going or stop playing.

In a game like Dragon Age I also can predict some of the end outcomes. I’m going to ultimately face the Archdemon and defeat it (although I didn’t see the exact choices coming, which was refreshing). But in Dragon Age, there are a thousand little things that I can choose from, quests at which I can succeed or fail along the way that change the narrative, if not the major plot arc. I can engage in conversations with some people and not others, reveal side stories, find weapons or artifacts. Dead Space? Not so much.

Now I haven’t given up on Dead Space. It has some core ideas that I still find worth pursuing, even if it does really feel like System Shock 2 every time I turn a corner. I also assume that some of the tropes that I find so tired would not be to someone who hasn’t played System Shock 2 or seen a million space-zombie movies, but then again, if you’re into games like Dead Space, you’ve probably seen at least a few.

I guess I’m just a little disappointed at the lack of sophistication in the game. I want it to tell me a story that I haven’t heard, or at least tell the old story in a new way, because, really, all stories (thanks, Northrop Frye) are old stories. Every time we tell a story, whether in a game, a novel, a play, a film, or a poem, it’s an old story repackaged and tied with a shiny new ribbon. I want more ribbon. I want sparkly paper, not the recycled wrapping from last Christmas.

And while Dead Space isn’t a shiny new game, I guess I feel like that shouldn’t matter when it comes to narrative. After all, there are a lot of old stories that still have their sparkle: Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolkien, Heinlein, Lewis, Carroll, Seuss, Austen, Eyre, Le Guin, Gaiman, Spielberg, Moore. Old stories that keep sparkling long after they’ve been told and retold. I’m not saying that I only like games with Dickensian-worthy stories, mind you. I’m a fan of summer blockbusters and pulp sci fi. But I am asking for more than as a way to get from one room full of monsters to the next. Also, after about ten rooms of monsters, that gets old, too. Mix it up. Give me a story covered in pretty paper with a bow on top, and let me guess what’s inside before you have me tear off the wrapping.

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