Last night, I finally played the first three hours of the new XBOX 360 game Dragon Age 2— to which, I had been looking forward for many months. And it was terrible (unlike the first Dragon Age, which was awesome). And as a writer, I think I know what the problem is. It’s Story.
A little background for the uninitiated: Story is probably the most popular and definitely the most influential book ever written on the subject of writing a movie. You can detect its influence in almost every mainstream Hollywood film, and, increasingly, in video games.
The only problem with Story is that dumb people sometimes misuse it, or use the tools it provides to cover-up bad, lazy writing.
Video games can have wonderful, sweeping narratives, delightful characters, and musical scores– just like movies. But they’re not movies. They’re not movies because you are trying to “beat” or “win” them. (This is not my original idea. Roger Ebert pointed it out in a recent essay.) I feel like the problem with Dragon Age 2 is that the designers got so caught-up in telling the story, they forgot they were making a video game.
Back to Story. McKee’s book is full of narrative devices you can use to start a good movie/script/novel. From flashbacks, to opening with a violent narrative event, to the “How did we get here?/How did it come to this?” flash-forward device, to the reluctant hero– McKee chronicles many, many satisfying ways that writers can begin a tale. But I feel like the creators of Dragon Age 2 got ahold of Story and decided it would be “innovative” and “cutting edge” of them (in a Peter Molyneux sort of way) to just use all of them at once. I imagine a writers’-room conversation that went something like:
“Dudes, let’s start Dragon Age 2 with this “framing narrative” thing–like, just a guy telling the story. . .but it’s the story of our game. Bob McKee says those are a clever, attention-getting way of starting.”
“Ooh yes, and then McKee also says starting with strong narrative action is good–like a battle, or an arrest, or an argument– so we can have someone being arrested and intensely interrogated! And we totes won’t explain why.”
“And then what if it’s an unreliable narrator–like in Usual Suspects!? McKee loves that movie. So like, the first playable section is this crazy adventure, where the characters fight Darkspawn and a giant troll-thing and a dragon, and then boom!!!, the narrator was lying!!! it didn’t even really happen!!!”
“OMG, totes!!! People won’t know what’s going on, the tone will constantly shift, and even after 3 hours, players will have no sense of the ‘rhythm’ of gameplay. This will be the most innovative opening to a video game yet!!!”
And let’s stop right there.
People like to play Role-Playing video games (like Dragon Age 2) because you get to solve mysteries, accrue possessions and abilities, and accomplish things. There is a feeling of progress. But when you play through a combat sequence and then learn “It was all a dream” and the things you accomplished didn’t really happen or “don’t count”, you’re left with a profoundly empty feeling.
And I don’t want to make this too long, but there are other sections where it appears that the designers of Dragon Age 2 stole specific examples from McKee, but then ignored the lessons he was using those specific examples to illustrate. For example, characters want things. Most stories are the story of a character trying to get what he or she wants. They can want something relatively modest (to get a date to the prom, to win the big game) or something huge (to defeat the entire Darkspawn army and restore the land to peace), but what they all have in common is the wanting. Dragon Age 2 begins with the main characters’ home being destroyed by the Blight. McKee’s book is full of examples of stories that start with disasters or destruction as a way of establishing what characters want. (McKee cites the destruction of Kal-El’s planet at the beginning of Superman, as I recall.). But after you have the disaster, you must then imbue the character with a corresponding wanting.
But for the first 2.5 hours (the length of an entire movie) of Dragon Age 2, I have no idea what my characters want. Their home has been destroyed, yes, and they are “fleeing the blight” by running from and to places with great intensity, but beyond moment-to-moment survival, I don’t know what they want. We get no backstory to give us clues. Two hours into the game, the actions of the characters have been so disparate and frazzled that we don’t really know what this story is the “story of.” Like, what’s remarkable enough about this narrative that would make it something you’d tell someone (as the narrator in the framing story is doing)? I have no answer to that question.
But also, Dragon Age 2’s opening is just poorly-plotted and full of bad writing. That’s the real problem. Robert McKee’s Story is a rulebook for writing– but as McKee points out in his own book, you can break all of the rules you if you do something funny, cool, and/or awesome. McKee cites the example of Steve Martin’s dentist sequence in Little Shop of Horrors. It doesn’t advance the plot at all, or tell you anything new about the main characters, or build tension. You could remove it from the movie, and the movie would still make sense. But it’s funny and awesome. That’s the only reason why they left it in.
There are plenty of sequences in the first 2.5 hours of Dragon Age 2 that don’t build tension, or tell you what characters want, or any of the other things that McKee insists scenes “should” do. But they’re also not funny, or awesome, or interesting. There is no excuse for them.
It takes 2.5 hours for the characters in Dragon Age 2 to survive this “innovative” narrative of boring and confusing machinations that eventually leaves them in the same place every RPG begins— in a city with equipment to buy, side quests to solve, and a main narrative story/mystery to advance. Why couldn’t we have just started there? Why did you have to waste 2.5 hours of my life on a boring opening that made no sense?
Anyhow, I am filled with Dragon Rage. Um, 2.
UPDATE 3/11/2011– Yesterday afternoon, the new issue of Gay Men Form Her arrived on my doorstep. I felt like its review of Dragon Age 2 bore out many of my points (and did so in video game-ese). Click here to read their review.