In DmC, the new reboot of Capcom’s Devil May Cry series, hero character Dante is the offspring of an angel mother and demon father. He looks human but is of another breed altogether, a species of celestial rarity called nephilim who are incredibly powerful.
They’re wild cards, nephilim are, and their bloodlines gives them the strength to elevate or subjugate the plain ol’ mortals who don’t know they exist.
The verboten relationship responsible for Dante’s existence reminds me of the way that writing copulates with video game design. What we typically think of as sharp wordsmithing can ruin a video game. Too in love with vocabulary and chatter? You’ll bore a player to tears. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, brevity may be the soul of wit, but a game that’s too stingy with explication won’t make anybody care about what’s going on.
So what kind of writing works best in video games? The kind that you notice only peripherally, that pricks the fringes of your consciousness when you’re ploughing down bad guys.
DmC has flashes of it. Demonic antagonists after real-world elites who control debt and manipulate the media. Good guys who ape hacktivist organisations like WikiLeaks. Those elements provide evidence of authored intent. It feels like there’s a guiding hand there, one that’s trying to differentiate itself from other game stories by connecting to reality outside of a console. That’s good.
Where developer Ninja Theory’s efforts in DmC feels more undisciplined is in the dialogue and affect of its characters. They’re almost all poses and not people. Dante’s surly brand of dismissiveness tells players a little bit about where he comes from but doesn’t really endear him to the audience. He’s a jerk who is only slightly less of one by the end of the game. And the villains don’t do much more than chew scenery and spit obscenities. Some sequences tease you with moments where the bad guys might become more than one-dimensional personalities but none of them deliver.
Ultimately, the best things about DmC are the unwritten things. The things that happen because of your reflexes and responses in the moment. Combat is where you write the script, where you determine how cool Dante is. None of the scripted moments — even this one — can rival the thrill of getting a SSS rating. DmC‘s action is heavenly, which makes the game’s writing feel like it comes from the netherworld. And that gap just highlights the continuing tension between player interaction and written narrative in big-budget video games. Fusing the two together gives you a powerful entity but that mixture is a tricky one to get right.
Another smaller game with a hellborn character is chock full of words, but goes in a different, more fulfilling direction than DmC. Argument Champion — playable for free in web browsers and made by Big Blue Boo Labs — casts you as a up-and-coming politician who must verbally trounce opponents. You win rounds by making the audience like your topic of choice more than that of your opponent. The trick here is to connect phrases to another quickly with as few moves as possible.
In Argument Champion, the gameplay itself is a sort of writing and vice versa. You brew up a little saga every time you try to connect random words like “count” to, say, “house”. There’s no thread of logic or motivation in the rhetorical battles but the tension generated by clicking through each cloud of words as you try to finish an argument feels great. The writing in Argument Champion isn’t much more than a series of templates but those repeated set-up and outcome text kept me far more rapt than anything in DmC.
Argument Champion wins out as far as ambition too. DmC wears its aspirations on its sleeve, shouting out its big ideas about civil disobedience and class warfare at rock-concert volume. But the dissonance between what you do and what you listen to/read adds a lot of noise. In Argument Champion, what you do and what you read are the same thing and leaving lots of room for the game to be interpreted as a sly commentary on shaping opinions.
At the end of the day, Argument Champion and DmC are built around different sets of ideas and deliver vastly divergent experiences. But, as the ideas of how to deliver interactive narrative in video games continue to evolve, the two titles stand as a stark contrast as to how game-makers can make the players themselves feel like the authors of their own sagas.