Thursday, October 3, 2013

Never Write a Wacky Surprise Ending Again.

I am Jack's incredibly tired writing trick.
One of the sad things about the video game industry is that it has very little institutional memory. People go into it young, get burned out on infinite crunch hours for minimal pay, realize they want to raise a family/live their lives, leave, and never go back.

As a result, you don't get enough skilled crafters who put in the decades it takes to get really good at it. (Not to mention the obvious effects of having an entire art form almost exclusively written and designed by young people, still mostly men.) This is especially clear when it comes to the storytelling.

Good storytelling requires a very fine understanding of humanity. How it acts. How it develops. How people react to success and failure. And, sorry, this sort of fine awareness is only helped by living, experiencing things, and thoroughly absorbing what others have learned and experienced.

(ProTip: If you want to write game stories or anything else, you should be a voracious reader and watcher of things. Cast a broad net. If you take any sort of visual storytelling seriously and haven't seen, say, The Godfather, or Casablanca, or just about anything by Orson Welles, you're doing it wrong. Money on the street, and you're just walking by.)

The surprise ending, it turns out, is that Bruce Willis is actually an Uruk-hai.
So, in the absence of a lot of writing experience, young writers tend to grab what they know. What's cool and shiny. What did they grow up watching? The wild, unexpected twist ending. The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Saw, every Shyamalan movie and every other film that, while they might have been good, should perhaps not be taken as a template for all storytelling forever.

(And yes, a lot of these movies are good. One of my favorite films is The Crying Game, and everyone got so overheated about its crazy twist that they often failed to notice it's a fantastic film about how complex and unpredictable love can be.)

Surprise wacky twists were good for a while. Now they're in half the games I play, and we need to take a break. They are the enemy of good storytelling.

Yeah, You Read That Right.

Good storytelling is, in the end, about humanity. About the choices they make, the results they have, and how those results affect us.

You know something? Those results are almost never surprising. That's the point. It's part of being human: The things we bring upon ourselves, good or bad, are often entirely predictable. You saw them coming a mile away (or you were deliberately not paying attention).

The patterns in the lives of others are frequently obvious, but the patterns in our own lives are often almost impossible to see. We can only recognize them when they are shown to us, so we can go: Oh. Yeah. That's me. Or that's not me, and I know why.

That is how great storytelling works. THAT IS WHY WE HAVE ART.

(Which is why it's so horribly depressing that our schools have been systematically purged of arts education in lieu of eternal test prep. A cynical person might think that we're removing anything that creates fully rounded humans and citizens of a Republic so that we can instead mass-manufacturer mindless work drones ranked and measured according to meaningless test scores. Happily, nobody has ever accused me of being cynical.)

Pictured: Art.
A Caveat

I am not trying to eliminate all surprises in drama. You can have big reveals. What I am specifically calling out are wacky twists, defined as those that require withholding key information from the viewer, out and out lying to the viewer, or using other storytelling tricks to obscure a key fact that would otherwise be instantly obvious.

Why Surprise Twist Endings Are Stupid

Here are some reasons.

1. They lie to the reader/viewer, or they withdraw key information. When you're telling a story and trying to make an emotional connection, you're doing something difficult. Don't waste your time. Focus on creating your characters. That's a tough enough job! Say the most relevant, interesting things about them. If you do your job right and make them compelling, you don’t need secrets in the first place.

2. They degrade the viewer's trust in future works of art. When I played Spec Ops: The Line, I was constantly distracted from immersion in the story by the suspicion that I was being lied to and some crazy twist was coming at the end. Of course, it was.

3. You're risking all for an uncertain payoff. The movie The Sixth Sense worked because the insane twist at the end was pretty cool. It's also a very fragile thing. If your ending isn't really that clever, or if someone spoils it, your movie better be able to stand on its own. Which is usually can't. And if your movie could stand on its own, why did you need the twist in the first place?

4. There's just a better way. There is nothing in the world, not spaceships blowing up, not a guy turning into a big green guy, nothing more interesting than human beings, the dumb ways they act, and why. Real stories, stories that LAST, are always about this. (And if you aren't trying to do this, why aren't you? Life is short.) If your wacky twist doesn't make your story be more about real people, you're just wanking. Throw it away.

And, finally, one key point specific to video games.

5. Most people don't finish video games, even short ones. If you put the crazy detail that makes your story make sense at the end of your game? Then, for most people who play your game, the story will never make sense at all! It's a big waste.

You may want to find out how the game ends before you get too comfortable ogling those.
A Real Life Example

I enjoyed Bioshock: Infinite a fair amount, but I really didn't get into it the way most people seemed to. It seemed to feel obligated to have the trademark, crazy "Bioshock twist," which resulted in a story with far less punch than it could have had.

(Spoilers ahead for Bioshock: Infinite, of course. Stay calm.)

So here's the story. You play this guy named Booker who is hired to rescue a woman named Elizabeth from this floating racist city in the sky. When you find her, she's missing the tip of one of her fingers. As you run around and shoot racists, you explore the mystery of where she came from and why you are there.

You learn, at the end, that Booker is Elizabeth's father. He sold her to pay off a gambling debt, and, when he tried to get her back, the tip of her finger was cut off.

Holy crap!

What a fantastic set-up for a story. A tormented father, guilty of a horrible crime, given a chance to redeem himself. A confused young woman who learns who her rescuer is and has to come to terms with what he did to her and the violent creature he has become. (Because it's a video game, so he's still spending a lot of time decapitating racists with his robot hand.) There's potential for a lot of cool, meaty drama and dialogue here.

Of course, none of that happens. Because Booker's relationship with his daughter (and that she is his daughter) has to stay secret until the very end of the game, for no reason.

It means that the whole, long game is spent with none of the characters ever talking about what they should be talking about. Elizabeth constantly goes on about her Disney princess "Oh, I wonder what life is like on the land?" issues, and expressing ambivalence about Booker's psychotic violence that doesn't come to anything, and constantly bugging you about the five dollars she found, instead of getting into any of the cool stuff that the story should have been about in the first place.

(If you want to see the superior drama that comes from letting a violent old guy and his young female ward talk about what they should be talking about, I plan to write about The Last of Us soon.)

And, again, a huge number of people don't finish games, unless they read the Wikipedia page. On Steam, as of this writing, only 58.2% of people who got the game achieved the Tin Soldier achievement, which means finishing the game at all. That's actually a really big percentage.

It still means over 40% of the people who bought Bioshock: Infinite on Steam never learned one thing about Booker and Elizabeth and the finger and what was going on. I honestly feel that if all the crazy bananas stuff was openly presented in the beginning, it would make people more engaged in what was going on then just another generic Mystery Box.

Like I said, fun game. I did enjoy it, and there were a lot of good things about that story. And yet, I am allowed to be bothered by wasted potential.

That's right. I said something critical about Bioshock: Infinite. Now's your chance to jump ahead to the Comments and fix me.
But Jeff, I've Played Your Games. Your Stories Suck!

That's right, kid. Get it out of your system. Nothing easier than a big, categorical cheap shot. Still the Internet, after all.

The writing in my early games was, frankly, lousy. It's a side effect of having to spend the 10000 hours it takes to gain proficiency in public.

I have tried, over the last two decades, to write games with good stories. My resources are limited, and I have to write a game at the same time as the plot and dialogue. This is not to excuse my many failures, but to explain them.

I do believe I've written some cool stories, and I think they're getting better. I have some story ideas for a new game series, which I might be able to write someday, that I think are fantastic.

But if you think my stories suck, hey, cool man. Some people like them. De gustibus non est disputandum. 

It's Just a Fad

I'm not really worried about it. Wacky twist storytelling is a cul de sac. There's really only so much you can do with it, compared with the infinite potential variety of simple stories about actual people doing actual things. As video games evolve as an art form, there will be a lot of dead ends.

And look at the bright side, if a writer is taking the time and effort to construct a twist, it at least means they care. They're trying! That is such a step up from game storytelling in the past.

The fact that this conversation could happen at all means we've come a long, long way.



44 comments:

  1. Jeff: Love the various tags at the end of your blog. I for one have been enjoying your games (stories) since the mid-90s and Exile: Escape from the Pit. (I miss the sounds effects and the fanfare at the beginning of each fight). Keep up the excellent work!

    ReplyDelete
  2. You make a lot of very good points, Jeff, and I agree wholeheartedly. I'm in a good position to appreciate the sort of growth as a writer that you talk about, because, in large part, I grew up with your games.

    I started playing Exile from a shareware CD I borrowed from a friend and quickly discovered that it was my favourite. Crappy writing or no, I could relate to the basic idea of the plot, and in my childish understanding of it, the story fit well.

    I matured as your writing did, and sometimes the parallels were pretty interesting. I learned about perspective at about the same time as I played Nethergate, and being able to play both sides in that game helped to really cement the notion of seeing other points of view. I doubt that was your purpose in writing it, but it served just the same.

    The Geneforge series and the concept of moral grey areas were something that, when I started playing, I didn't understand well at all. Once I got into it, though, and also once I cast my broader net, to quote you--understand that my childhood did consist of more than Spiderweb games--it was something that I was better able to appreciate just as you were better able to write.

    Thus, though I may be nostalgic sometimes for the simpler writing of your early work, I definitely prefer your latest stuff.

    Anyway, and this goes well beyond the specific case of twist endings, I am reminded of a comparison between Justin Bieber's and Frank Sinatra's musical styles that implied teen pop's popularity indicated a degenerate society. The comparison is crap (teen pop existed in the 60's and was of similar musical quality), but the initial condition is correct: teen pop is popular ... with teens. Likewise, young game-writers (and their faddish offerings) will remain popular with young gamers. But if more mature music is more popular with more mature listeners, then why cannot that comparison extend to gaming, as well? So my point--actually my question--is, do you have any good examples of the Sinatras of gaming?

    Also, the lousy writing does still have value; you just have to look harder. And it has the added benefit of being able to be dredged up like Baby Album B--I still get a chuckle every now and then from that Scorched Earth lead pipe thing.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Some of what you said reminded me of a film criticism article I read the other month.

    Article is here (warning: It's wordy):

    http://badassdigest.com/2012/04/08/film-crit-hulk-smash-hulk-vs-the-john-carter-script/

    It argues one fundamental reason why John Carter failed as a movie is what you basically described Bioshock Infinite doing - it pointlessly held back important character information to create these cheap, distracting, out-of-place 'revelations' throughout the film. The same info could have been much better used to establish the main character and get the audience to care about him and know why he was acting the why he was.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I enjoyed this and am now interested in watching an aforementioned movie. Also I found worth in your earliest creations. A fanbase exists for them no matter how small!

    ReplyDelete
  5. @Chris: Film Crit Hulk is one of my favorite sites. A must-read for anyone into storytelling, visual or otherwise.

    - Jeff Vogel

    ReplyDelete
  6. About Bioshock, I must admit I liked the story and characters very much until the very few last chapters. Also, it didn't bother me that they withheld information about real relationship between Booker and Elizabeth.

    But I still did not like the ending. For me, the trouble is that when you begin to delve into time-travelling and alternate realities stuff, there is pretty much no way to write a good ending. It all will end in a tangled mess, which was how I perceived Bioshock's ending.

    What pained me was that they did not have to bring all this stuff into story. They already had a perfectly good setting, they had good writing abilities (as evidenced by much of the game) and could make the main villain interesting without turning him into Booker's alter ego.

    Still, at least this game's story worked for more than a half of it. I recently tried XCom Bureau Declassified, and it annoyed me at every corner with its boring characters, bad dialogues and monotone voice-over.

    ReplyDelete
  7. But Jeff, I've Played Your Games. Your Stories are amazing. I grew up playing shareware version of Exile, I was 15 years old and I could barely speak English and to this day, I haven't played another game that I loved so dearly. And I played every game.
    There's no way in hell the writing in your early games was lousy.

    That being said, I agree with everything you said about twist endings - they do suck, and they suck some major balls.
    Though the original Bioshock was brilliantly executed (imo).

    ReplyDelete
  8. Complaints about the writing in multi-million dollar productions with credit screens that last longer than the novelty of the game are not equivalent to complaints about games produced by somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 to 2.5 people who cannot possibly specialize in every aspect of that process.

    ReplyDelete
  9. MaxEd, see "12 Monkeys." Twist Ending that makes sense, since you knew about it all along, you just didn't know what you were seeing. Also, time travel that concludes in an organic manner.

    "12 Monkeys" kind of set me up for the Terminator trilogy: Terminator plays with the same concept of historic determinism, albeit in a much less polished way.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Interesting article, but I couldn't agree less about Spec Ops [spoiler alert] specifically because of one of the points you make early on. Most game stories are indeed written by immature young males with hero fantasies, and that ending calls them out on that! It's a slap in the face, an ending that basically tells you you're an idiot, and I think gamers (and the industry at large) need that wake up call.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I wish to add to this: There are multiple pillars of a good story -- plot, character, setting, and theme being the high-school four I grew up with. A good story will generally have all four at least solid; a great one will excel in at least one. Theme is generally (IMHO) the first one to go in clumsy writing, followed by Character and Setting, and finally Plot.

    Most AAA video games nowadays are 95-100% plot. The characters exist to further the Plot. The setting exists to provide a place for the Plot to happen. There isn't a theme, but if there was one it would be "Isn't This A Cool Plot?"

    From playing a Geneforge, Avernum, and Avadon --- these games are mainly about Setting. The plot exists to give you a reason to explore the setting. The characters exist because the setting requires them ....

    But, also, the Theme exists. There are questions in the world that are explored through the games -- poorly at times, perhaps, but nevertheless explored. I still think sometimes about the questions raised in them, and generally left unanswered.

    So, yeah -- in my opinion, Plot Twists aren't really a problem. Trying to use Plot as a substitute for an actual story IS.

    --

    As an aside: while I love Film Crit Hulk, he is first and foremost a movie guy; when he talks about games, I feel he interprets them too much through that movie-lens. Which is understandable, given the depth of understanding he has of movies; I just find myself disagreeing with him on games, where the two approaches clash.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Amnesia: TDD worked particularly well for me. It employs more of a gradual reveal than a twist ending, but it still withholds key information about its main character from the player, and the clincher doesn't come until near the end of the game. It works because it is (as Jeff emphasizes) a story about humanity, but I think the twist ending helped bring that out for me. Let me see if I can explain without too much spoilerage.

    Daniel, the player character, barely remembers his past, which is slowly revealed by journal entries that you find as you play. The early part of the game establishes him as a harmless scholarly type, who has been somehow wronged by the villainous Baron Alexander. He's also a nervous wreck exploring a castle full of monsters and forces that he can't fight, and is easy to sympathize with. I got very attached to him.

    Enter the second half of the game, and some things start coming out about Daniel that are ... not so nice. It turns out that he's done some pretty nasty stuff. At first he let himself be brainwashed into believing it was the right thing to do, but then It Got Worse. Because I had let myself develop affection for Daniel, the final revelation was a real punch in the emotional gut. "Daniel! WHAT DID YOU DO??" The effect and implications of it lingered in my mind for days.

    If the game had told me everything important about Daniel up front, I might have said, "This character is revolting. Feed him to the Water Lurker and let's be done with him." But by introducing me to Nice Daniel first and saving Horrible Daniel for later, the game provided a revealing lesson about how "good" people go bad -- about how we all go bad -- and I felt disposed to show mercy instead.

    P.S. If anyone is thinking about playing Amnesia after reading this, know what you're getting into. (I didn't.) The second half or so of the game is about equivalent to a virtual tour of a concentration camp, and it's immersive enough to mess you up. As I said, I was left dealing with the "fallout" from this game for days, though I think the end result was positive.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful column. As a 55-year-old woman who's been playing RPG's since the days of Hack (the one BEFORE Nethack :-D), I'd love to see real stories in games, not silly crap. One of the best RPG's I've played in the past half-dozen years is the first Witcher game, which was based on a series of novels. Maybe if we had more games based on novels instead of movies, the storytelling would improve?

    ReplyDelete
  14. So, so, so true.

    As an indie RPG developer, your post remains some of the most insightful reads available. Glad to see you actively blogging again.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Jeff,

    Always look forward to your blogs. You have a wonderfully articulate style that is intelligent, observant, yet manages to be warm and self-depreciating at the same time. Aside from being mad about your games (I mean, really, who makes games like yours??), I think you're a great role model to people who think about games and other areas of creativity. Continue to go forth.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Oh, i have a word I coined for another relative to the 'surprise twist' you so eloquently and rightfully destroyed in your blog. I call it "Oppo-shit"; Hollywood's infuriating habit of taking an idea and simply reversing it, to try to gain idea traction, whether it's a role/gender reversal etc. It's just about everywhere right now. It sucks hard, and along with the over-reliance on the surprise twist, I hate it.

    ReplyDelete
  17. This was a very interesting post, and I certainly agree that surprising endings are very abused, however I don't think I agree that Bioshock Infinite is such a case.

    First, I think we can agree that surprise endings can be used in very good ways. Some of the ones you have mentioned -- Fight Club, Sixth Sense, and The Crying Game -- are movies that I really love, and the "surprising ending" is in fact a key part of that.

    When done well, as in these movies, to me part of the power of the technique is through the withholding of information and ultimate reveal being done in a way that actually emphasizes the characters in the story.

    The key to this is that information is not being withheld just to make it a surprise to the viewer, but because that information is not available to the main protagonist of the story. This then directly supports the character development of the story since, if it is a first-person narrative, it puts us closer inside the head of the main protagonist: our understanding of what is going on is the same as theirs, and our surprise at the reveal at the end also matches their own.

    On top of that, one thing I really love about this narrative technique is that it actually allows the story to be written with two narrative points of view: a first-person unreliable perspective that we experience the first time, and then something more like a third person omniscient perspective once we know the surprise and can view the story again more objectively. If done well, with parts of the story that don't make sense or, even better, are completely missed without knowing the surprise, I think it allows for a nice rich and deep kind of story telling.

    From that perspective, I think Bioshock Infinite made good use of this technique. The story as you first experience it is clearly from Booker's perspective, as you are playing him, and the information you have matches the information he has. When the reveal(s) come, these are surprises to him as much they are to you, so it is supporting his character development in your understanding of what he is feeling.

    That said, I'm not sure how much this narrative technique really makes sense for games. Part of its power is in being able to go back and experience the story again in a new way. In the world of games, where it is hard enough to get people to experience the entire story once, how many are going to benefit from getting to play it again to experience it with the new information?

    ReplyDelete
  18. Other than a 1300 number, being able to communicate your thoughts in a well fashioned manner is a very important communication tool.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I can only guess how hard it is sometimes to find and complete a serious task at university. As a former student every man can name several logical reasons for youngsters to look for http://papersmart.net/buy-thesis.html service while the are studying. I ask only the best writing companies to perform my scheduled tasks and make a good arrangements of my own ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  20. This is my first time i visit here. I found so many entertaining stuff in your blog, especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the leisure here! Keep up the good work. I have been meaning to write something like this on my website and you have given me an idea. Liga Inggris

    ReplyDelete
  21. Thanks such a lot with this fantastic new internet site. I’m terribly unemployed up to point out it to anyone. It makes American state therefore glad your Brobdingnagian understanding and knowledge have a brand new channel for attempting into the globe. Judi Bola

    ReplyDelete
  22. I enjoyed reading your article and found it to be informative and to the point.

    http://www.buyessays.us

    ReplyDelete
  23. Stir back over the heat for two minutes, add extra seasoning and red chilli to taste and then add the chopped coriander just before putting the chutney into clean jam jars.
    Jack Health |

    Health City Online |

    Home Schooler |

    Ronthom Home 4 Sale |

    Paradise House |

    SD Doll House |

    Doll House |

    Home Wood Appliance |

    My House for Kids |

    Watching House |

    ReplyDelete
  24. I truly believe that client logic should be developed in client technology and executed on the client.
    Speedy Any Car |

    Any Car Zone |

    Red Bell Food |

    Food Step Learning |

    Notch Food |

    Idea Festival Food |

    Sports Meets Food |

    Food and Living |

    Qbel Food |

    Bosie Food Storage |

    ReplyDelete
  25. Thanks for the blog loaded with so many information. Stopping by your blog helped me to get what I was looking for.find it here: 
    The Firm For Pets |

    My Aging Pets |

    Your Aging Pets |

    Animal Exposures |

    Cool Pets Live |

    Pets Services |

    Park Animal |

    Pets Seminar |

    Execu Car |

    Iceland Auto Rental |

    ReplyDelete
  26. I agree with you. This post is truly inspiring. I like your post and everything you share with us is current and very informative, I want to bookmark the page so I can return here from you that you have done a fantastic job. Cricket Betting Tips Golf Swing Tips

    ReplyDelete
  27. Hi dear, It was great post for everyone. Just say thanks for it. Assignment Service at Excellent Academic Help

    ReplyDelete
  28. This is cool post and i enjoy to read this post. your blog is fantastic and you have good staff in your blog. nice sharing keep it up.http://www.smallbusinesscoaches.net |

    ReplyDelete
  29. I have not much time to visit many websites. But today I found this site accidently. I explored much information which is useful to my life. Thanks!www.richardsautomotive.net |

    ReplyDelete
  30. I can see that you are an expert at your field! I am launching a website soon, and your information will be very useful for me.. Thanks for all your help and wishing you all the success in your business. http://www.helpforthehomeless.net |

    ReplyDelete
  31. I've just decided to create a blog, which I have been wanting to do for a while. Thanks for this post, it's really useful!http://www.softwarebackups.net |

    ReplyDelete
  32. Great article Lot's of information to Read...Great Man Keep Posting and update to People..Thanks http://www.healthygreenpages.net |

    ReplyDelete
  33. A good informative post that you have shared and appreciate your work for sharing the information.http://www.madideassoftware.org |

    ReplyDelete
  34. I have not much time to visit many websites. But today I found this site accidently. I explored much information which is useful to my life. Thanks!www.oil-home.org |

    ReplyDelete
  35. I can see that you are an expert at your field! I am launching a website soon, and your information will be very useful for me.. Thanks for all your help and wishing you all the success in your business. http://www.non-profitschools.org |

    ReplyDelete
  36. Excellent share, this is a really quality post. In underlying objects theory I’d like to write like this too. Taking time and real effort to make a good article.http://www.autoreisenzug.com |

    ReplyDelete
  37. I've just decided to create a blog, which I have been wanting to do for a while. Thanks for this post, it's really useful!www.lgbttraveluk.org |

    ReplyDelete
  38. Great article Lot's of information to Read...Great Man Keep Posting and update to People..Thanks www.realestate-channel.org |

    ReplyDelete
  39. Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift. Golf Swing Tips Baseball Player Panduan Judi Online

    ReplyDelete