Video Games and the Final Third Problem

I’ve been playing some video games recently. Mostly they’ve been online games (since I actually have a group I like to play with now, I’ve been playing an MMO, which I thought I’d never actually do), but I’ve been diving back into one of the games that has given me a lot of joy over the years: The Bioshock series.

In particular, I’ve been playing Bioshock: Infinite, because a long time ago I decided to do a whole-trilogy replay, and I finished 2 and got busy, so I figured it was about time to finish that off, while I was in the mood for an FPS.

I won’t be talking specifically about it now, because I have a plan coming up where I’m going to talk about that trilogy in much more depth, and I want to address how this affects Bioshock specifically when I do that. I won’t, for example, be talking about the extent to which I think this applies to Bioshock: Infinite or the particular parts that made me think of this. But I do want to talk about a general issue in a blog post at the moment.

I’ve also been thinking a bit about the heritage of video games lately, because I’ve been jumping between a few games (being on holidays means I haven’t had access to my standard games library, plus the aforementioned co-op gaming), from modern FPSes to resource management games to retro platformers. Mostly I’ve been having some ideas crystallise about mechanics and structure in video games, and how the mechanics of play affect the actual experience.

More on that when I actually get around to talking about Bioshock as a whole.

Note: Some of these comments come from games I haven’t played, but I have watched other people play. I would like to think my analysis would hold up despite that, but I know that I do tend to feel slightly different watching games to playing them (the difference between watching a movie and playing a game – we’re always more invested when we’re given actual agency, like in a game, than when we’re observing others), so I thought I’d mention that in the interests of full disclosure.

So now I’ve faffed around with the intro long enough, let’s dive into the topic.

Have you ever noticed how many video games reach the 2/3 point and become utterly incomprehensible?

Perhaps that’s a bit strong – often the plots are easy enough to follow. But for some reason, there are a lot of games I’ve seen that start off strong, but at about the 2/3 point just start leaping from setpiece to setpiece like they’re trying to navigate a Hopscotch board made of Tasers with their trousers on fire.

The pacing and structural problems are pretty obvious: for some reason, a lot of games tend to have a point where they start to throw curveballs at the player, while also ramping up the challenge of the game and throwing out the Big Moments (whether that’s fighting-based, like that moment when your player jumps onto a helicopter runner and pulls it screaming and burning out of the sky, or narrative-based, like that moment when your character learns that one of their best friends caused the entire conflict of the plot, and has been helping them partially to make amends for their wrongdoing).

On paper, this is quite sensible. Books, movies, and more traditional narrative media follow very similar patterns. The last third of the book is when you’ve laid the groundwork for why the audience should care about the characters, and you’re working up to your finale, so you need to start ramping up in tension to prepare.

This isn’t to say there aren’t problems with pacing in books and movies – false-ending syndrome seems to plague blockbuster movies at the moment, where they feel like they should have ended about an hour before they actually do, because they have too many plot threads that they need to tie up, and you end up with multiple finales in the one movie. But this seems to be fairly particular to video games, this problem where the plot takes a hard left turn, and then a hard right turn, and you’re left wondering when these things became more important than the main plot.

Some games handle this more gracefully than others. I feel that HALO Reach, despite several faults, handled this quite well. The last few setpieces were quite disjointed, but there was enough cohesion that they didn’t feel out of nowhere. I had other issues with the plot, but I can say that it connected very well. Same with Spec Ops: The Line – it was less disjointed, but it also had a big ramp up and big setpieces in quite different areas while maintaining its cohesion.

I can’t say the same for, say, The Evil Within 2, or Mass Effect 3. Or Maize, which just proves that this isn’t a problem limited to big-budget games with above 30 hours of gameplay.

So. On paper, the transition makes sense – the last third of the plot is when curveballs should be thrown, and when you should start to ramp up the tension and start bringing out all the things that make people say ‘wow!’ Where is this going wrong?

It’s tempting to blame this on video game padding and call it a day. As much as I would happily upend everything gross collected into my keyboard directly onto my face if Bendy and the Ink Machine asked me to as part of the gameplay, the most recent instalment did feel like it had a lot of issues with padding, trying to make the game artificially longer than it really was with fetch quests. But that’s only an example – I would be willing to bet that nearly half of the big games that are released have reviews complaining that it felt artificially long. I don’t see a lot of game advertising these days, but I do remember it was still very recently that I saw games advertised with “Over 100 hours of gameplay!!” (I think it was actually Dragon Age 2 that most stuck out to me, given all the furore that surrounded that game’s release).

A lot of plot-related sins in games can be traced to that mentality that a game has to give you ‘your money’s worth’ and contain a certain number of hours of gameplay as a selling point. That’s not entirely unreasonable, given how much the average big-release game costs. Especially living over here in Australia! Not many people would be willing to shell out upwards of $80, $90 for a three-hour experience, I don’t care how good the graphics are. It’s the same logic that means fantasy novels on the shelves in bookstores end up at least brick-sized, even if they have to do it by increasing the margins, making the text huge, and increasing the spacing until the book’s 400 pages long. People who are looking for certain types of media want to get the most entertainment they can for their money. Given two games with equally interesting premises, people would rather spend $80 on a game they’ll play for 80 hours than a game they’ll play for 30. Or, at least, that’s how companies are marketing things. So it would be tempting to say that these games are adding sidequests, essentially, adding roadblocks on the way to the finale to lengthen their runtime and make the game more attractive to players. They’re doing it more gracefully than the average game that makes us go “ugh, why am I doing this useless thing when I really want to be solving the conflict of the plot?”, so we don’t immediately attribute it to that. But that’s a possibility.

I don’t think it is that, though. Many of these games are otherwise very tightly plotted, and these plotting zig-zags tend not to really deviate from the main plot. They don’t involve sub-villains, and they don’t involve plot ‘backtracking’ (for example, when the hero has the McGuffin and is ready to take on the villain, but suddenly the McGuffin is stolen and the hero has to get it back before they can go to the final fight). So yes, they do extend the plot, but I think this is a side-benefit rather than the main mentality which causes the problem.

No, I think it has much more to do with pacing problems, and how the medium is limited.

Games are only going to get more sophisticated in how they involve the player in the narrative. I would have prefaced that with “I think” or “I believe” but I don’t actually think that is a controversial statement. We’ve basically proved that games aren’t a passing fad – they’re here to stay, and they’re a medium with its own rules and limitations. Games, unlike books or movies, can involve the player in the choices of the story, and that’s something that a lot of developers are latching onto in order to tell stories.

But there’s a reason I used ‘limitations’ in the paragraph above. There are problems with involving the player in story construction. For games with multiple endings, especially RPG-type games where you can change NPCs’ dialogue and responses by your choices in the game, you also have to be aware of the choices that the player can’t take. It’s impossible to let the player do literally anything they want. You just can’t program for that. The closest we get is games like Skyrim, which, at least in my opinion, have so much choice that it starts to feel like you can’t affect the world again. In Skyrim, you can kill important figures, completely abandon the main quest, and make allies or enemies of pretty much any group in the game, but most of the side quests need to be open to all players regardless of play style and actions in order for there to be enough content for such a sprawling game with that amount of choice. Sure, you can annoy a group and not get a couple of their quests, but can you imagine trying to program enough side quests for a game that had near-completely different sets of quests for the character based just on whether you chose to side with the Imperials or the Stormcloaks? It’s impossible. So no matter what you do, most of the content has to remain unaffected, which just ends up feeling like you haven’t really made a meaningful choice at all.

That’s just the big, obvious problem. There’s also a whole host of smaller ones. For example, if you have a morality system in your game, like the Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect (which wasn’t quite a good/evil system, but it counts because it’s a system that awarded points based on personality traits that the player displays), you’ll have to contend with players possibly getting thrown out of the experience because they disagree with how a choice awarded those points.

But the one that matters here is that it adds an extra layer of difficulty to creating plot twists and complications.

In a book or movie, you have complete control over what a character notices and chooses. It’s totally possible to create a situation where the audience knows something but the character doesn’t, and the character makes a misinformed choice based on that information, which creates tension.

Not so in a game. The best-case scenario in a game is that the player knows pretty much exactly what the character knows, and can adjust their decisions accordingly. Players get frustrated when they guess a plot twist in advance, but the game forces them to continue doing something they know is counterproductive or doomed to failure anyway. Of course, there are reasons in a game that you would deliberately cause that frustration, but not all games will want that. In fact, most games won’t.

If you want to create a plot twist that surprises the player and the character, you’ll need to deliberately blindside your player, in other words.

Now, there are ways to gracefully do this – traditional media often use the trick of having it clear that something will go wrong, but it’s unclear what. A character is definitely shifty, but their actual betrayal comes from an unexpected direction. But in a game where the character and audience are considered to be a unit in terms of plot information, that’s a much more delicate balance, and you can only rely on that so many times before it starts to get tired.

This causes a problem where all the plot twists at the end of a game need to come with minimal foreshadowing, in order to retain emotional impact, and if the game team isn’t entirely on the ball with their writing, it’s very easy to slip to either side: the player realises too early, or have no warning at all. Since heavy-handed foreshadowing is a pitfall that’s driven into writers throughout their career, a lot of them, I think, slip to the other side. Put three or four of those in a row to make your big setpieces, and the plot starts to feel disjointed. The player doesn’t have the threads of foreshadowing and character knowledge to contextualise the plot anymore, so it feels like a whole lot of things are Just Happening. Stunning things, emotional things, things that make us gasp and want to punch the villains in the face, or wish we had a friend next to us that we could nudge and say “Dude, how cool is this!”, but not things that feel connected in a way that makes a lasting impression.

I think this one will go away a bit in the future; games are starting to get a better grasp on this whole interactivity thing, and on themselves as a medium, rather than being either plotless or entirely borrowing their techniques from more traditional media. It stands to reason that game writers and developers will start to recognise this trend and come up with ways to avoid it that books and movies can’t manage. But for the next few years, at least, we’ll continue to see games that don’t quite manage to hit this one on the nose, and end up feeling like a rollercoaster missing a few sections of track.

And yeah, we’ll need to stop trying to make every game as long as possible, too. That’ll help.

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