I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, some of the best story telling is happening in video games right now. Roger Ebert continues to be an idiot for thinking that video games are not art. It’s very simple Roger; Video games are art already. He is basically a dinosaur from another era, who can’t comprehend the sea of change that’s taken place in video game design and story telling recently. Five years ago, Ebert was right. Now, he couldn’t be more wrong.
In this article I’m using some early story telling techniques from Assassin’s Creed III to illustrate what to do and what not to do for writers in all mediums. This is not a full review of Assassin’s Creed III. I’m still very early in the game, perhaps only six or seven hours into it. Please note this is a FULL SPOILERS discussion.
To start with, let’s talk about a few things the writers really failed at, followed by a discussion of a brilliant early twist that makes up for almost all of it.
The story begins with a narrative info dump. We see a solitary figure standing and telling us a bunch of stuff that I can barely remember about the games that came before and what is going to happen now. This is by no means a sleek, small info dump like the scrolling credits of Star Wars, which are completely effective. This is a minute long soliloquy as if this was a Shakespearean play and we can deal with someone turning to the audience to tell us something. Talking at the reader/viewer/player is never a good idea. It’s safe to say that almost every time you decide to write a sentence that tells us about what’s happened or dump about something you want people to know, it’s probably wrong. It’s definitely wrong if you take three-five minutes to do it, boring me and everyone else to death.
In contrast, the writer’s would have served the story better by “in medias res” aka “in the middle of things,” a technique well known among skilled writers. Start of in the middle of the action, with things already happening and fill us in bit by bit as we follow the story. Otherwise, a modern audience will just tune out like I did with the Assassin’s Creed III info dump. If you threatened my life, then I still couldn’t tell you what they told me. This is a product of modern psychology. We have too much communication, too much to listen to and we can only follow the now. We want streamlined, highly compressed information. We’ve seen too many stories already, way more than our ancient ancestors did, so old techniques don’t work. We know them and so they evolve, getting more precise, conveying more in less time. This is multi-layered information delivery and it’s the hallmark of good writing no matter what the form.
A second huge mistake is very similar to the first one. In the early going many of the story elements are designed to show me how to control the game. This is a technique that arrived in video games through the first person shooter. It’s known as “look up, look down,” as in when a space marine wakes up from hyper sleep and the deck officer has to orient him to his surroundings. This was an improvement on reading the manual before a person starts a game, but it feels old hat now. To fix it, the writers need to make a more engaging scene, further disguising that this is a learning experience, while making it a critical part of the story. This is a good lesson for all writers. Make everything in your story a critical part of the story, or cut it out. Be ruthless. Any time you decide you are going to include something, but it is not moving the story forward, it has to go. This most often happens with dialogue. Like in bad sci-fi writing where one character turns to another and says, “gee, how does that strange object work?’ The second character replies, “well, John, the technology is a meta-metal compound–” The reader nods off.
So, those are the bad bits. Now let’s get to the early twist. Full spoilers from here on out, so this is your last warning.
After about five hours into the game, you suddenly learn that you’ve been playing as the bad guy! Now, that is brilliant. It hits like a runaway train. It comes as an amazing shock. It’s all the more so because the writers have used a lot of sleight of hand to trick you into thinking you are playing as the hero.
The story takes place during the Revolutionary War, which everyone knows according to all the advertising that led up to release of the game. But actually the story starts during the French and Indian war, even if the main action is the Revolutionary War. The initial character you play as is hostile to British Red Coats, and every American knows they were the enemy during the first Revolutionary War. We also get the character killing and assassinating people early, with the techniques every player knows from the early game as trademarks of the hero. We see him helping drive the British out and helping the Indians. We see him fall in love with a beautiful Indian woman. If you know more about the game, such as the main character is supposed to be an Indian who we follow from early life to later in life, then you are probably guessing that this man might be the father. And of course he is. He fathers the hero by getting it on with the beautiful Indian girl. We can envision the man passing on his assassin’s secret knowledge to his son. But then you get the curve ball. That character you’ve been playing as decides to induct a fellow member into his secret cabal. We watch the ceremony in a cut scene and it finishes with him congratulating the man for becoming a…TEMPLAR. Anyone who has played the games knows the Templars are the main enemy of the assassins. Wow. In a second you realize you’ve been playing as the bad guy. One review at IGN says that you never end up hating the bad guys as much as earlier games because of this twist. Nonsense! This makes you hate them all the more because they tricked you.
The twist also works because at the very moment you realize what just happened, you look back in a flash over the whole previous five hours and realize you’ve missed all of the signs that he was the bad guy. It’s like a near death experience, where you remember everything that came before instantly. He is a noble Englishman, not an Indian. He is considered a traitor by his brother for reasons that at first appear to be because he backs the French. In no way does he back the French. He just wants everyone out of the way. His brother hates him, we can infer, because he is a bastard “no doubt doing the devil’s work,” as his brother says. The French, the British and as we quickly learn to a devastating effect, the Indians are too. There are other signs. As we watch the Indian village burn, post the big revelation, as the true hero emerges, our admiration for the first character we played as turns to bile. Because the bad guy is personal, we hate him even more. Always try to make your bad guys personal. It hurts even more when they betray you.
Hopefully this article gives you a little insight into what makes a great story great. The twist made up for early stumbles by the writers. Now imagine if they’d gotten those parts right too? How much more amazing would an already amazing story have been? Remember, in writing, every page counts. When everything is working towards the effect of enthralling the reader/viewer/player, the result is a mesmerizing masterpiece.