On Video Game Storytelling and Subtlety
In defense of the ‘low brow’
Like I said in my earlier piece, I believe video game discourse has been slowly poisoned by the idea that there is much of a distinction between what some might call ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’. Camp is looked down upon since “it’s so goofy, it’s obviously not worth discussing much at all”, while subtleties and nuance are given way more importance than they should probably get when it comes to discourse. Ask any gaming community or forum what the best video game stories are and you’ll invariably get a list that looks something like this:
The Last of Us
Silent Hill 2
Shadow of the Colossus
God of War (2018)
Some Final Fantasy game
While I often find myself agreeing with most of the games on this list (The Last of Us is a big source of disagreement for me on most of its aspects; a subject I’ll tackle another time), a key thing to remember about this list is that fans often tend to emphasise just how nuanced the story is with subtleties in character development and storytelling beats. The saddest thing about these discussions is that we often tend to miss games that, on the surface, look ‘low brow’.
I basically want to use this whole article as a way to gush about two of my favourite video games ever: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening. Two games that are considered by many to be ‘low brow’, because they’re over-the-top action games where an extra level of emphasis is placed on stylishness. What many fail to recognise is that both of these games tell downright amazing stories, and often successfully tap into the nuances of human behaviour, the concept of love, the philosophies of living, and even politics.
Let’s start with Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance – a game I reviewed all the way back when it came out in 2013 (when I was still new to this whole talk-about-games thing) – that has been gaining no small amount of popularity in recent times thanks to some great price cuts and the pandemic giving everyone a lot more time to play video games.
Like I said earlier, Revengeance is an over-the-top action game with an emphasis in looking cool while kicking ass. It’s also incredibly funny, with Senator Armstrong being a key, stand-out character in the whole game. Sadly, this leads many to ignore some of the more interesting things Revengeance has to say. Sure, child soldiers are bad and Armstrong’s brand of social Darwinism will lead to a terrible time all-round, but several other key aspects of the story are, sadly, ignored.
Bladewolf – one of the first actual boss fights in the game after the tutorial – is an excellent example. Bladewolf’s entire character arc revolves around the ability to actually make use of its vast capability of learning and analysing to truly understand what it means to live and die. Through his friendship with Raiden, Bladewolf is able to properly understand the world in a way machines can’t really hope to, since key concepts of living, like mortality and death—concepts that immortal machines likely can’t fathom.
Jetstream Sam, while cool as hell, is also a great example. His story’s even deep enough to warrant an entire minor expansion where you get to play through his backstory. Sam also has an unlikely friendship with Bladewolf, and a key part of his character is his struggle with the question about whether what he’s doing is right or wrong. Because of his earlier beliefs that might makes right, Sam ended up joining Armstrong in his plans, but the more he worked for Armstrong, the more he started questioning his own entire world view.
These kinds of existential questions in Revengeance often lack any sort of subtlety, but as is notable from the fact that these aren’t things discussed very often, one has to wonder whether subtlety has any real place in these kinds of things to begin with. Too often, subtleties are ignored because they’re just too subtle. Maybe a hammer would be more effective than a scalpel with these instances.
It’s worth keeping in mind that these are just examples. I’ll talk about Revengeance with more depth when I get around to giving the game it’s own article, but for now, these couple of paragraphs will have to do while I move on to the next game.
Devils Never Cry
From the moment you start the game, Devil May Cry 3 comes across a schizophrenic game. Its opening cutscene uses a gothic metal song and focuses on a fight to the death between two brothers: Dante and Vergil. Actually start the first level, and Dante’s eating pizza, hitting a jukebox to start a song, and shooting pool balls to take out a bunch of demons after skating on another demon while shooting everywhere like a mad man. Devil May Cry 3 is a complex game, you see, but subtle it is not.
Dante is a goof. He’s too cool for school. He’s badass. But he’s also the punchline in just about every scene where he tries to be cool. The second level starts with Dante stylishly putting on his coat. It ends with Dante’s sneeze causing his own office to get destroyed. Such is the duality of Dante.
But, you see, Dante isn’t just a slightly-stupid anime protagonist. He’s a driven man who hopes to redeem Vergil, and ultimately find some sort of reconciliation between the two. Vergil’s entire motivation is to lay claim to the demonic power of their father – something he believes to be his birthright. Dante, on the other hand, is more interested in honouring his father in a different way: by actually keeping humanity safe from demons.
Devil May Cry 3 ends up being about a lot more than just stopping the bad guys. It’s the story of two brothers trying to connect again, but ultimately getting torn apart even further than they already were. It’s about a woman trying to figure out her own meaning in life, ultimately having to help Dante kill her father. It’s about characters learning to live in the world past the violence around them. After all, there’s a reason that one of the final lines of dialogue in the game is also the name of its theme song: Devils Never Cry.
Nuance and subtlety are great, but let’s not place these concepts on such a high pedestal. There’s plenty of room for unsubtle stories, and sometimes, subtlety might even be the wrong choice when it comes to storytelling just because how easy it can be to miss minor details.
Much like when I spoke about camp and cringe, I believe it’s important to stop considering things to be ‘low brow’. It doesn’t really help discussion, and more importantly, it becomes easier to ignore great video games that often deserve even more attention than some currently-accepted “greatest video game stories”.
At some point, I’ll probably write about just why I dislike The Last of Us as much as I do, but I don’t think that time is nearing any time soon. Instead, I’m more than happy talking about great video games that manage to tell fun, interesting stories without sacrificing the quality of their gameplay.
Here’s the moral of this story: don’t ignore a game because it looks goofy. Chances are pretty high that the goofy-looking game has a lot more going on than you’d think just by looking at a plot synopsis or a couple of trailers.