You’ve probably seen it already: the young heroine of the upcoming Forspoken game weaves her way through empty fields and encases villains in pillars of ash, joking the whole way. “So, let me clear things up…” she begins, adopting the wry, mocking tone of so many contemporary pop culture heroes. Throw in a few mentions of “creepy dragons” and “slaying puffy beasts,” and you have the makings of an instant internet meme.
It didn’t take long for people to start making jokes at the expense of publicity. Content creator and voice actor ProZD was one of the first to get in on the action:
Bloodborne PSX’s FunnyWes has come up with a fun version of FromSoftware’s beloved game:
And my personal favorite is this Tony Hawk-themed BobVids contribution:
All in all, it’s tempting to laugh at these goofy memes and move on. After all, the gaming community will find something new and embarrassing to laugh about in the coming days. And since the game is still in the oven, we have no idea if this ad will reflect the final product. But, to me, the unfortunate writing in this ad speaks to a bigger problem in game production, which has been bubbling over the past five to ten years. I speak of the abject”Josephificationwhich has taken the game to its roots, especially in the triple-A space.
If you play a lot of video games, you’ve probably noticed that the tone and character writing of big-budget blockbusters has become remarkably similar in recent years. Or, to put it in a less charitable way, there’s a strong sense that a lot of games stick with the generic instead of really differentiating themselves from the rest of the pack. The great video game writing style settled on the sarcastic, joke-filled unease first popularized by Joss Whedon in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly.
For example, compare the reveal trailers for the upcoming Saints Row and the delayed Arkane Redfall exclusive, each from around a year ago. Although very different in their genre and overall presentation, the two games have an eerily similar tone, filled with witty banter, non-sequences, sight gags and, of course, plenty of banter. “Sleep well,” says our intrepid sniper before punching holes in five vampires. “Ugh, that’s SO unprofessional,” jokes one of our lovable losers upon learning that the gang they’re about to rob shot the arms dealer delivering the goods.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with injecting a little levity into your game. By their very nature, video games are often ridiculous, and well-timed humor can go a long way in mitigating some of the more boring from a long campaign. (And, to be fair to both games, they both boast much better writing than that damn Forspoken ad.) But lately, it feels like every game has the exact same sense of humor: violent , but not graphic; clumsy, but not absurd; irreverent, but never transgressive. It’s unclear exactly what the objects of these punchlines are, except perhaps the concept of anyone taking anything seriously.
The backlash for this kind of smarmy, over-the-nose writing style has been brewing in some quarters of the internet for a long time, especially in movie communities. The authoritative critique is perhaps best summed up by the recent memeification of the quip: “Well, that just happened!”
Despite the fact that this phrase doesn’t actually seem to appear in any actual Marvel movies, it’s become shorthand for the cliche, worn-out jokes that some people attribute to the MCU. The line itself is The Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon’s core philosophy: No matter what just happened, we can make a silly referential joke at its expense and instantly erase any dramatic tension. (For the record, someone actually says, “He’s right behind me, isn’t he?” in Thor: Love and Thunder. That’s Taika Waititi for you.)
Whether you like this style of writing will ultimately come down to your personal taste. Yet even if you love something, there is an ultimate limit to that love. No one wants to eat pizza with every meal. For me, the main problem with relying on the Whedon-esque joke all the time is that it robs every situation of the stakes. Fear, anger, hate, love – it flattens all the ends of human emotion into a smug smile and a “yours”. Noted Horror Writer Gretchen Felker Martin recently described Whedon’s style as “rolling your eyes at the deepest visions of ecstasy and horror the universe has to offer,” and I think that’s a great way to put it.
Perhaps the most interesting case study in the industry’s ongoing Jossification came in 2018, when Destiny 2 killed off fan-favorite Exo Cayde-6 in the Forsaken expansion. Voiced by frequent Whedon collaborator Nathan Fillion, Cayde-6 served as a walking embodiment of the game’s light-hearted writing style. Cayde’s death was seen by many fans as a step towards a more serious style in keeping with the important traditions of the game and deeper themes. When Destiny 2 launched, Cayde-6’s sense of humor was front and center, leading to a more Jossified tone shift that not all fans appreciated. With this move, Destiny managed to explore more considered territory in the trauma-focused Haunted season. Whichever way you look at it, it was certainly interesting to see a popular video game developer take the concept of idle banter and put two holes in its head.
Overall, I don’t think video game writers should strive to institute a new wave of dark, earnest dialogue – or at least not all at once. However, I’d like to see more games take inspiration from well-written, humor-driven indies like Disco Elysium, Hades, and even Cruelty Squad. Disco Elysium’s new design of giving each of your character’s emotions a unique voice makes it stand out in space, with its leaning towards the surreal. Cruelty Squad depicts an absurd and ugly world torn apart by capitalism that is so deeply cynical that it manages to elicit some belly laughs. And while Hades has its fair share of Tumblr-y jokes, each of its memorable characters has such a strong voice and personality that it manages to nail the landing.
Not every game needs to have award-winning writing, but a little diversity in tone, genre, and humor would go a long way. That’s a big part of why The Witcher 3 is such a great RPG, and I hope some developers will learn from its example. The dialogue in this Forspoken ad may have drawn the ire of jokers online, but there’s nothing particularly bad or objectionable about it. The Whedon-esque writing came across as edgy and fresh in its day, but time has passed, and it now feels generic and mundane without the proper treatment.
Regardless of what the developers think of this style, it’s clear that a sizable portion of the public is willing to poke fun at its excesses on occasion. As such, if you write video games, you better sharpen your one-liners because content creators are coming for you.
The real tragedy of this whole debacle is that the images of Forsaken in the ad actually look pretty convincing, at least by the standards of today’s big-budget open-world games: dynamic traversal options, satisfying combat. If only Square Enix had uploaded a version without sound.
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