[Op-Ed] On Game Writing, ‘Citizen Kane,’ and the Backstory-driven Character

My friend and fellow game dev Mr. Wasteland (real name: Matt Burns) wrote the latest and maybe most incisive piece about the game industry’s constant call for the “’Citizen Kane’ of video games.” In “Against Kane,” Matt holds up Kane as a technical rather than narrative achievement, with an overemphasis on backstory to provide a narrow understanding of its main character:

The flashbacks build and build over the course of two hours, culminating to reveal that Charles Foster Kane, the newspaper magnate, the fine art collector, the megalomaniac, the inveterate asshole– he was actually sad this whole time! Isn’t that a shock!

While Matt and I will have to disagree on the narrative merits of Kane (the flashbacks create a spiral of unfulfilled need for Kane, with that sled being just one of many needy loops for the character), he does hint at a problem in modern game narrative: allowing backstory (and plot) to drive a character rather than allowing a character to drive the story.

Since his piece was only a few hundred words, I’ll try to do the conversation justice and keep my argument brief so you readers can respond via our Twitter feed. What I’m sensing in Matt’s reaction to Kane–and it’s one that I’ve had to many so-called “important” game releases–is that the character, by the end, is reduced down to one trauma, one nugget from his backstory to “explain” all of his complexity away. This kind of simplistic focus on one aspect of a character doesn’t leave the story much of any place to go and worse, doesn’t allow the character to drive the story.

Connor from “Assassin’s Creed III” is on a path of revenge against the Templars because his tribe was slaughtered, while “BioShock Infinite” and “Max Payne 3″ share similarly traumatized leads lurching through plots that require them to do violence because that’s all their pasts have programmed them to do. These heavily-designed stories are ones that happen to their protagonists, and that’s often why we as gamers will sometimes feel a sense of dissatisfaction or disorientation when the narrative is finished. Connor is a victim of the dozens of missions he’s sent on by NPCs, while “Call of Duty” places you in a the role of a killing machine that exists only for clearing out combat areas.

After four, six, eight, or even 20 hours with a character, we feel that we’ve made no impact at all, that the result of our actions and decisions didn’t matter because they in turn didn’t matter to the protagonist.

It’s also why “The Walking Dead” resonated so much with gamers: protagonist Lee had a backstory which informed the present, but as a character with agency, Lee was able to inform the present and the future. The Telltale adventure game model might be a more transparent means to this kind of emphasis on character over plot, but it gets the job done, creating not only a connection with the narrative, but a real sense of the stakes and consequences of player action.

Instead of the “Citizen Kane” of games, we should really be looking towards the “Breaking Bad” of games (if we’re going to be doing the whole tortured cross-media comparison): arguably one of the richest shows on modern television, each week is driven by the actions of Walter White–in fact, by the actions and decisions of the entire supporting cast. The plot doesn’t exist in a vacuum, secretly pushing the characters back and forth: instead, it’s their agency, their mistakes that shape the plot, making it an organic drama that moves in surprising, shocking, and thrilling ways.

Do you feel like any games out there have achieved this? Is that model even something you gamers out there even want? Let us know.

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