Today’s posts is mainly one of reflection, based on some frustrations with the latest game I played, XCOM 2. I am not going to analyse the game in full, or review it for that matter of fact, but simply pick at a element that I found increasingly frustrating throughout the game: its way of presenting the narrative.
Since I will be writing my coming Thesis on video game narrative I am becoming increasingly sensitive to this subject, which is why I am also writing about it today. This is sort of a way for me to put some thoughts down on “paper”, and with a bit of luck you may find it interesting to read as well!
Before I talk more about narrative let me praise this game a little. It has been lauded as one of the best games of 2016 with a metacritic score of 88 out of 100 from reviewers, although interestingly enough it got 7.1 out of 10 from users. The game features interesting tactics options in its turn-based strategic warfare game-play. You have to make a lot of choices, and frequent compromises if you wish to succeed in the campaign mode, and in regards to that I must say it is a long time since I last found a strategy game this interesting. I would have loved to put many more hours into it, and experiment with new and different tactics, but sadly that will never happen because some of the design choices in the game are detrimental to the user experience. This may sound harsh, but let me explain.
In short, the premise of the story is that aliens are present on Earth and there is peace between the races, however a resistance group suspects a sinister plot is running beneath the surface. As the commander of the resistance it is the player’s task to uncover the alien’s secrets and fight them at every turn with the ultimate goal of preventing the alien’s latest technological development and freeing planet Earth from their grasp. That is it. You spend the rest of the game improving your war plane thing, and going on missions with 4-6 soldiers engaging in turn-based combat with the aliens.
Now, a developer has to choose how much they wish to utilise narrative in their game, and how this will affect game-play. In this kind of game, it doesn’t actually require a lot of narrative to keep the ball rolling, as the most interesting part of playing is engaging with the strategy and engaging with the games mechanics. The ludic elements that is. However, is seems as though the developers weren’t quite sure just how to approach the narrative framing of the game, and therefore ended up creating an unlucky compromise that does more harm than good.
I am a fan of narratives in video games, hence my studying them, but in this case, XCOM 2 would have been a lot better if most of the narrative elements had been stripped away.
XCOM 2 delivers its narrative mainly through three nodes. There are cut-scenes during significant events or discoveries, boxes of text that describe new technology or offers a breakdown of current situation or mission, and then there are voice-overs (via a radio) and lines delivered by various characters or soldiers. I will take you through these one by one.
Cut-scenes: I don’t in fact have any particular beef with these. There are general arguments both for and against the use of cut-scenes in video games in general, but for the time being I see them as a decent narrative device borrowed from film, if used sparingly. There are a few too many small insignificant cut-scenes in the game, but overall these are alright, although not amazing when it comes to propelling the story forward or adding meaningful significance to the game. In fact, come to think of it there are occasionally cut-scenes within the actual missions, during key missions. These are disruptive and shouldn’t be there. They add nothing to the playing experience and merely succeed in disrupting the flow of the game-play.
Text: The text in XCOM 2, as in so many other video games, are mainly there to add a bit of depth to the games story. After each technological breakthrough you can read more about the “science” behind it. I wonder how many actually take the time to read these. I read the first few, found them increasingly uninteresting, since all discoveries offered something else of more interest, new items that introduce new or variations to game-play mechanics. The texts aren’t disruptive as such, but could in many cases probably be seen as superfluous to the experience.
Voice-over (+ dramatic shots): As you may have guessed by now, my emphasis in this post lies within the disruption of game experience, something I would argue a game designer should never do, unless for a very good reason. When you play a mission in XCOM 2, you sadly don’t get to just play it because you are constantly disturbed various reasons. The two main perpetrators are voice-overs via the radio, and what I’ve chosen to call dramatic shots – these occur as soon as you take a shot with one of your soldiers, instead of merely executing the action the game makes you watch the shot in a Matrix-esque bullet time version.
The voice-overs over the radio occur relatively often (because of the structure of many missions, only giving you a finite amount of turns to complete the mission) informing you that you are “running out of time” or “taking heavy casualties”. One issue here is the repetitiveness of these messages – there is a severe lack of variation, and so these also just become superfluous more often than not. I could forgive this transgression, was it not for the sad fact that the game lock ALL actions when a message is delivered. You can’t do anything, just stop playing the game, and listen. Over and over again…
It is the same issue we encounter with the dramatic shots. There is no option to skip them – was this the case I would probably not judge them as harshly. Once again, you take a shot and the controls are wrestled from you and all you can do is sit and watch for a bit. As if that wasn’t bad enough this segment of the game is glitchy as F***. The amount of times I’ve watched a soldiers face from a the ground whilst they take the shot, or see them shoot straight through a rock in front of them, or seen an enemy just disappear then hear shots being fired, hearing more stuff happening and then finally regain controls to see a soldier dead. It is actually unbearable.
Okay okay, I am being very critical here of what is in many ways a fun game to play, but it is because of its poor execution of story-telling elements – it makes me particularly frustrated at a time where I am researching such elements. If a developer is to use narrative and story-telling elements, then they should at least be used to create some meaningful connection to the player, and not as an overused gimmick, such as the bullet time effect strikes me as being.
Could we remove All of the above things from the game I would probably play it a lot more, because that would remove all the distractions that disrupt the game-play. This is a case of ludic elements and narrative elements working against each other, which is harming the experience of the game – and this is exactly what game designers must avoid if they are to create fun, meaningful experiences for players that include both game and story.
If you have a different take on this then please let me know, these are merely in-situ thoughts after complete my play-through.
** A special thanks to Mikkel Hald, and occational guest-blogger, who mentioned how the game takes control away from the player and inspired me to write this post**